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Sheep Dog Hollow: an eco-friendly renovation

The Rumford fireplace - energy-efficiency rediscovered

In the 1800s, a Rumford fireplace was the latest word in energy efficiency. They're still being built.

By / December 24, 2009

A heat-efficient Rumford fireplace is located in the future living room at Sheep Dog Hollow. a 1902 farmhouse that's being renovated.

Joanne Ciccarello/Staff/The Christian Science Monitor


One of the great pleasures of renovating Sheepdog Hollow in a green and economical manner is what one stumbles across while researching the best options.

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Alexandra writes about the "green" and budget-friendly renovation of a 100-year-old farmhouse in south-central Connecticut.

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I confess I didn’t exactly stumble on the Rumford fireplace. It was brought to my attention by Dale King, a builder we’re using who specializes in old homes. One day I was chatting with Dale and bemoaning the fact that fireplaces are so inefficient in terms of energy, and yet, so necessary -- at least as far as I’m concerned -- in a home – old or new.

“Have you thought of a Rumford?” he asked.

“A what?”

“A Rumford. They’ve been around since the 1800s. They’re amazingly efficient.”

And so I set out to discover just what “a Rumford” is. It turns out concerns about energy efficiency have been around a lot longer than the energy crisis of the 1970s and today's energy concerns.

In the 1700s, the cost of fuel (wood in those days) and how inefficient it was as a heat source also concerned great men. That’s what prompted Ben Franklin to invent the Franklin Stove in 1742. It’s also one of things that preoccupied a Woburn, Mass.-born physicist named Benjamin Thomson, who later became known as Count Rumford and for whom the fireplace is named.

Here we need a brief explanation of how a boy born in New England ended up as a count of the Holy Roman Empire. This is from the website

Count Rumford, for whom the fireplace is named, was born Benjamin Thompson in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1753 and, because he was a loyalist, he left (abruptly) with the British in 1776. He spent much of his life as an employee of the Bavarian government where he received his title, "Count of the Holy Roman Empire." Rumford is known primarily for the work he did on the nature of heat.

Rumford fireplaces were common from 1796, when Count Rumford first wrote about them, until about 1850. Jefferson had them built at Monticello, and Thoreau listed them among the modern conveniences that everyone took for granted. There are still many original Rumford fireplaces -- often buried behind newer renovations --throughout the country.

Ah, American ingenuity and how quickly we forget it.

If Thomas Jefferson, who was wise enough to put a metal roof on Monticello in the early 1800s, had a Rumford, I wanted one for Sheepdog Hollow, too!

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