BENJAMIN THOMPSON, better known by the name of Count Rumford, which he afterwards acquired, was born at Woburn in Massachusetts on the 26th of March 1753. His ancestors appear to have been among the earliest of the colonists of Massachusetts, and in all probability came originally from England. They seem to have held a respectable rank among their neighbors, and to have been for one or two generations moderately wealthy.
Ebenezer Thompson, the grandfather of Count Rumford, held a captain's commission in the militia of the province, and was therefore a man of some repute in the place where he resided. Count Rumford's father, whose name was also Benjamin, dying while his son was a mere infant, the mother and child continued in the grandfather's house, which had been their home even while the husband was alive. In October 1755, however, the old man died, leaving a small provision for his grandson, barely sufficient, it would appear, to maintain him till he should arrive at an age to be able to do something for himself. In the following year Mrs. Thompson, whose maiden name was Ruth Simonds, married a second husband, Josiah Pierce, also a resident in Woburn; and the boy accompanied his mother to the house of his stepfather, who stipulated, however, that he should receive the weekly sum of two shillings and five pence for the child's maintenance till he attained his eighth year. His grandfather's little legacy seems to have furnished the means of meeting this demand.
As soon as young Thompson was able to learn his letters, he was sent to the school of his native town taught by a Mr. John Fowle, who is said to have been 'a gentleman of liberal education, and an excellent teacher;' and here in company with all the children of the place, he was taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin, having the reputation, it is said, of being a quick boy. At the age of eleven he left the school of Woburn, and joined one taught by a Mr. Hill at Medford, under whose care he made greater advances in mathematics than he had attempted under Mr. Fowle. The only circumstances from which we can form an idea of the progress he made, is the statement that his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy was sufficient to enable him to calculate eclipses.
At thirteen years of age Thompson was bound apprentice to Mr. John Appleby, a respectable merchant in Salem, the second town in point of size in Massachusetts, although at that time it must have been little more than a village. His occupations with Mr. Appleby were principally those of a clerk in the counting-house; and he appears to have had sufficient leisure, while attending to his duties, to extend his reading and his acquaintance with scientific subjects. At this time also he began to exibit a taste for designing and engraving, as well as for mechanical . invention. Among other contrivances upon which he exercised his ingenuity, was one for solving the famous problem of the Perpetual Motion; a chimera upon which young men of a turn of mind similar to his often try their untaught powers. One evening, we are informed, the young speculator was so sure that he had at length found out the Perpetual Motion, that he set out with the secret in his head to Woburn, intending to communicate it to a friend and old schoolfellow, Loammi Baldwin, in whose knowledge in such matters he placed great confidence. Loammi spent the night discussing the project with him, and so sensibly, that we are told young Thompson became convinced of the mechanical impossibility of his or any other Perpetual Motion, and returned to his counting-house in Salem next morning, resolved to attempt something less magnificent and more practicable.
About this time the differences between the mother country and the American colonies were beginning to assume a serious aspect. The imposition of the famous stamp tax in 1765 had excited great indignation among the colonists, and its repeal in the following year was celebrated with proportionate rejoicings. At Salem, where the commercial interest predominated, it was determined that there should be a great display of fireworks on the occasion; and as the town did not possess a professional pyrotechnist, Mr. Appleby's clerk contrived to get his services in that capacity accepted. Unluckily, while preparing some detonating mixture, he handled the pestle so as to cause an explosion, by which he was so severely burnt that his life was despaired of. At length he was able to remove from his mother's house at Woburn, to which he had been carried after the accident, and resume his employment at Salem. The renewed attempts of the mother country, however, to impose taxes on the colonies, followed as they were by the resolution of the merchants in the colonies not to import any of the products of the mother country, produced such a stagnation of trade in Salem, as at other towns, that Mr. Appleby, having no occasion for the further services of a clerk, was glad to give young Thompson up his indentures, and allow him to return to Woburn.