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The Calorie-Counting Count’s Cannon

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#26 Science in History

25 January 1798

On this day in 1798, Count Rumford, presented his new idea about heat.

Portrait of Count Rumford by Gainsborough

Count Rumford, AKA Sir Benjamin Thompson, was a man of many talents. He was a military strategist, spy and renowned physicist and it was through his experiments with heat that he made one of his most important contributions to science.

Before Count Rumford’s presentation, the prevailing idea was that heat was a fluid, called caloric, that flows from hotter bodies to colder ones. After he presented his paper, “An Inquiry concerning the Source of Heat which is Excited by Friction”, ideas about energy and thermodynamics really start to develop.

Rumford was fascinated by the nature of heat and spent a great deal of time conducting experiments to try and understand it. One of his most famous experiments involved drilling a hole into a cannon barrel and filling it with cold water. He then had a team of men turn a drill inside the barrel. He found that the water began to heat up. He had demonstrated that heat is a form of energy and that it can be converted from mechanical work. This was a revolutionary concept at the time, and it laid the groundwork for the development of thermodynamics.


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