October 31, 2014 – April 19, 2015
Rumford. Recipes for a better Bavaria

This is the first exhibition to pay tribute to the life and works of Sir Benjamin Thompson (born Woburn near Boston, Massachusetts, 1753, dead Auteuil, Paris, 1814), also known as Count Rumford, who was undoubtedly one of the greatest intellects ever to have worked in Munich. He originally founded the “Englischer Garten” and was a social reformer, crisis manager, statesman, physicist, inventor, town planner and nutritionist as well as a prolific designer. Rumford was a typically American ‘soldier of fortune’, an idealist unencumbered by any particular ideology who was driven by the practical conviction that he could help make the world a better place. Even today, the solutions that he proposed merit serious consideration as we seek to tackle the social, economic, environmental and, ultimately, ethical problems of a globalized world.

When the United States of America declared independence on July 4, 1776, Rumford was 23 years old. Already a senior officer, he had first-hand experience of the ongoing conflict of the War of Independence. Yet far from espousing the Rebels’ cause, Rumford chose to remain in the service of King George III of England. As a loyal defender of the British Crown, he manoeuvered his way behind enemy lines, spying on his American countrymen. This accounts for the ambivalent attitude that people in his home country still have towards him to this day – whilst he is recognized as a famous scientist, he is nonetheless regarded fundamentally as a traitor. Rumford is seen as someone who, even from his early days, was always a stalwart of the old European state system, striving to preserve its power and ultimately using it to build his own remarkable career in Europe.

Benjamin Thompson, who would come to prominence under the name of Count Rumford, was born a farmer’s son on March 26, 1753 in the village of Woburn, some ten miles to the northeast of Boston in the then British colony of Massachusetts. The recipient of only a rudimentary school education, he would go on to improve his learning through his own studies. The strikingly inquiring mind that allowed him to do this was one of his defining traits, and in paying tribute to his subsequent scientific achievements it is important to remember that they were the life’s work of an autodidact. Rumford is in fact a classic example of the American self-made man.

Because of his support for the British, Rumford was forced to flee New England for London, where he was received at the court of King George III. He returned to the colonies one last time to fight his countrymen as an officer in the King’s American Dragoons, but by then the war was already lost. Thompson regarded himself as a military man, but an impoverished Britain was no longer in a position to offer him the kind of occupation he sought. He decided to try his luck with the Habsburgs of Vienna who, after the War of the Bavarian Succession, were heading for a conflict with the Ottoman Empire. On his way there, a chain of coincidences brought him to the court of Charles Theodore, Elector Palatine and of Bavaria. It was here that the most productive chapters of his unlikely story would unfold over the course of the next fourteen years.

Charles Theodore was captivated by this urbane, charismatic and energetic young man. The treaty governing the succession of the Wittelsbach dynasty had obliged Charles Theodore to unite the Palatinate with Bavaria and take up residence in Munich which he regarded, not to put too fine a point on it, as a provincial backwater.

At his Mannheim court he had built up a highly prized library, listened to Mozart play music for him, cultivated a close association with Voltaire and watched the first ever staging of Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’. In Bavaria, on the other hand, he felt like an outsider. While Charles Theodore was a highly educated man who subscribed to the ideas of the Enlightenment, this in no way meant that he was ready to abandon the principle of absolute rule. He saw himself as a patron of the arts and regarded military matters as an unwelcome distraction. His royal household in Munich became a city within a city and this was the household into which Thompson was welcomed.

Bavaria was at a critical juncture. The Habsburgs still harbored claims to ownership of this state, but Prussia had no intention of accepting them. The Habsburg ruler, Joseph II, made a proposal to Charles Theodore to exchange Bavaria for parts of modern-day Belgium. Charles Theodore, however, chose to decline the offer.

Charles Theodore’s decision to reject this trade-off left him facing a fundamental problem. He was the ruler of a large, underdeveloped territory, but he had neither a big enough army to defend it nor the resources to govern it properly. Since there was virtually no industry in Bavaria, agriculture was the people’s only means of subsistence. As a result, poverty was widespread and beggars accounted for roughly a third of the entire population.

Benjamin Thompson realized that all these problems were interconnected and proposed a wide-ranging reform of the army. Between 1788 and 1796, he gradually devised a reform program that incorporated all the innovations he envisaged for Bavaria and led to him being granted the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire.

These reforms provide the focus of the exhibition. While we have chosen in this instance to concentrate on just three particular themes – the army and civil society, poverty and unemployment, and the use, design and sharing of urban spaces –, the exhibition itself explores a much wider range. They are intended to offer particularly good examples of the contemporary relevance of the problems that Rumford was trying to find answers to more than 200 years ago.

Rumford’s reforms began with the soldiers themselves. They belonged to the lowest class of society, were forbidden to marry and were inevitably destined for a life of unemployment as soon as they were no longer able to serve in the army. Rumford’s vision was to make them into useful members of society capable of providing for themselves. He created ‘military gardens’ where soldiers would be taught how to farm the land. He also founded military academies that were open to individuals of any social class as long as they had the requisite talents. There is in fact some substance to the claim that his ideas marked the first step in the development of modern-day Germany’s view of the armed forces as ‘citizens in uniform’.

It was the first of these military gardens that would later become Munich’s “Englischer Garten”. The area known as the Hirschau, when not flooded by the River Isar, had previously been used as a hunting ground by the Prince-Elector. Now it was to be divided up into small plots so that soldiers could learn to grow their own produce. However, Rumford was soon to develop his plan further, extending the area covered by the garden, building expensive defenses to prevent the plains from flooding and encouraging the Prince-Elector to open ‘Theodore’s Park’ to all Munich’s citizens. Rumford had the park designed in the English style. It included a model farm, a military garden, an area given over to arboriculture, several bridges, a veterinary school founded at Rumford’s instigation and, of course, a Chinese Tower.

Rumford had come across the idea of a Chinese-style pagoda at London’s Kew Gardens. However, the version he had built in Munich was not designed merely to bring a flavor of the exotic to the city. Chinoiserie may have been in vogue at many of Europe’s courts, but Rumford was more interested in projecting the Emperor and Empress as role models. He believed that they should stand as symbols of good, healthy, enlightened and rational rule. Logically, an empire as vast as China could only be governed by an exemplary ruler. While in Munich people were taking their first strolls through the “Englischer Garten”, in Paris the Bastille was being stormed. In circumstances such as these, it is true to say that the “Englischer Garten” introduced Munich’s citizens to the concept of leisure more than the concept of freedom. It was a whole new experience to go for a promenade or an outdoor stroll for no specific purpose other than to appreciate the beauty of nature. The view from the Chinese Tower was proof indeed that the city was only one component of the overall landscape.

Rumford founded the Military Workhouse in the Munich suburb of Au in order to put an end to the problem of begging that was burgeoning in the cities and crippling the entire country. The Catholic practice of giving alms to the poor could no longer cope with the scale of the problem and far too many people were left starving. The Enlightenment had brought about a change in attitudes towards poverty, which was no longer simply accepted as the will of God. Not content merely with making sure that people had enough to eat, Rumford also decided to try his hand at employment policy. He wanted to teach people – especially children – the value and purpose of work. His clinically clean workhouse was predominantly filled with looms, but also boasted leather and button-making workshops. It produced uniforms designed by Rumford himself for the regiments of the Bavarian army. Children were introduced to their work gradually and also received schooling. The poor were given hot meals and a wage in return for their labor.

The workhouse had to feed more than a thousand people every day. This led Rumford to design innovative energy-saving stoves and to become one of the first people to calculate the energy content of food. His goal was to minimize the amount of energy – predominantly in the shape of firewood – used to prepare meals and maximize the energy they provided to those eating them. To this end, he invented a ground-breaking new stove together with the recipe for Rumford’s Soup which would soon become famous even outside of Bavaria. Potatoes, which formed an important part of the recipe, were regarded with suspicion in Bavaria because they were known to be toxic if eaten raw. By using them in his soup, Rumford made an important contribution to restoring their reputation.

Rumford reached the zenith of his power in 1796. French and Habsburg troops had both invaded Bavaria, arriving at the gates of Munich at the same time. Cannons were bombarding the city from the “Gasteig” hill and the Red Tower had gone up in flames. Prince-Elector Charles Theodore had all too quickly left Bavaria and appointed Rumford as Supreme Commander of the army. Employing a cunning piece of diplomatic trickery, he eventually convinced both armies to retreat before either breached the city’s defences.

He managed to do this, even though another of his ambitious projects had been to demolish the city walls and build Karlsplatz square. Rumford was quick to realize that the walls were no longer able to protect the city and indeed prevented it from expanding. In tearing down the walls, he laid the foundations of today’s inner ring road. However, the fact that to this day most people in Munich prefer to refer to Karlsplatz square as ‘Stachus’ – after a tavern that was once located on the site where it was built – speaks volumes about the residents’ opinion of Charles Theodore, after whom the square was officially named.

There was, however, a problem. The French and the Austrians had been paid huge sums of money to persuade them to withdraw their armies from Bavaria. The cost of these payments meant that over the next few years many of Rumford’s reforms were halted or even reversed. The poor people’s institution was forced to close, since the regiments could no longer afford to pay for their uniforms.

Meanwhile, Rumford did not only generate new social ideas, but also pressed ahead with his scientific investigations. He was to become one of the founders of the theory of heat when he discovered, during the process of boring cannons, that motion generates heat.

Rumford decided to return to London even before Charles Theodore’s death in 1799. However, when he failed to be accepted as the Wittelsbachs’ ambassador to England as had been originally intended, he ended up becoming a founder of the Royal Institution, a scientific education and research body established with the object of publishing and disseminating progressive ideas for the good of mankind. He also spent much of his time travelling around Europe, setting up soup kitchens in various locations and returning to Munich on several occasions. On one of these journeys he met Madame Lavoisier, the widow of the great chemist. They married in Paris in 1804, but the relationship survived only a short time. Rumford subsequently moved to the then Paris suburb of Auteuil, where he lived alone. He threw himself into his scientific work in a number of different fields until his eventual death in 1814. He was buried in Auteuil cemetery.

Given the enormous breadth of Rumford’s activities, it might seem somewhat presumptuous to attempt to provide a brief overview of his work. It is certainly no easy feat to draw together the strands of his involvement in matters as seemingly disparate as gunpowder, uniforms, epaulettes, naval signal codes, potatoes, oil lamps, nutrition, poverty, unemployment, thermodynamics, agronomy, urban planning, fitted kitchens, coffee makers, invisible ink, horses, silkworms, kilns for producing quicklime, fireplaces, landscape gardens, livestock diseases and air pollution. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that these different topics are in fact closely interconnected and actually comprise an eminently logical sequence of problems.

On the one hand, Rumford’s ideas always possessed a coldly calculating, mathematical quality. He was driven to find the most effective solution by a process of rational deduction. At the same time, however, everything he did was informed by his ethical convictions. He wanted to improve people’s lives, or as Rumford himself put it, to promote ‘the happiness of our fellow creatures’.


To accompany the exhibition, the Hirmer Verlag has published a comprehensive 380-page catalogue with around 200 color plates that provide an insight into Rumford’s life and works, including material not contained in the exhibition. It is available (only in German) at a price of € 39.90 from the museum’s ticket office and at our online shop.