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Matthew Boulton

factory founder and steam engine builder

Matthew Boulton was born in Birmingham, England, on September 14, 1728, the son of a silver-stamper who made snuff boxes, toothpick cases, nutmeg graters, and other trinkets and gadgets. After completing his basic education, he joined his father's business, and became a full partner at the age of 21. At about that same time, he married Mary Robinson, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Mary Boulton inherited 14,00 upon her parents' death, which passed to her husband upon her death in 1759. His father died that same year, leaving the business to him. In 1760, Boulton married Ann, his late wife's younger sister.

Matthew Boulton

Soho Manufactory

Not content with simply stamping out gadgets, Boulton wanted the family business to expand into a variety of product lines, each of which would be known for quality of workmanship. To accomodate his ambitious plan he took on a partner, John Fothergill and established the Soho Manufactory, a 13-acre facility that, by 1765, was producing jewelry, "toys," Sheffield plate and sterling silver tableware, coins, medals, etc. The facility housed not only workshops, but also showrooms, design offices, stores, and accommodation for the workers. At its height, the Soho Manufactory employed over a thousand people.

Soho Manufactory main building
Soho Manufactory main building

The Soho Manufactory was by no means a typical factory. Rather than a huge open space full of noisy machinery run by unskilled laborers who were treated more like servants than employees, it was a collection of workshops brought together under a single ownership and a single roof. The workers employed here were skilled craftsmen, and were well paid. Boulton equipped those workers with all manner of labor-saving devices, thus enabling them to be more productive. Such devices were made affordable by the use of clever designs with interchangeable components, enabling many products to be assembled from a relatively small number of components, each of which was efficiently manufactured in quantity. The Soho Manufactory was also unique in the way it treated its workers. Boulton refused to hire workers under the age of 12. In the 1770's, he introduced one of the first workers' insurance plans in the world, funded by workers' contributions of 1/60th of their wages, and which paid benefits of up to 80% of wages to staff who were sick or injured. Boulton also ensured that the works were clean, well lit, and well ventilated. The facility quickly became Birmingham's premier tourist attraction, and, ever the shrewd businessman, Boulton had a tea-house built on the grounds so visitors could enjoy refreshments after their factory tour.

Among the many products made at the Soho Manufactory were sterling silver plate for those who could afford it, and Sheffield plate, silver-plated copper, for those who could not afford pure silver; it is believed that Boulton was the first to manufacture Sheffield plate in the Birmingham area. Although there was a significant difference in price between the two types of items, they were both made with the same exacting craftsmanship and quality, with the cost difference being reflected only in the base metal used. To facilitate the assaying and hallmarking of the great quantities of silver plate he wanted his factory to produce, Boulton campaigned vigorously for the establishment of an assay office in Birmingham, which was successful. Despite the quality of the products, the Boulton & Fothergill silver plate product line was never financially profitable due to the huge amount of capital that had to be tied up in the company's silver inventory.

left: Fothergill sterling silver church flagon
right: Sheffield plate beer tankard

Fothergill sterling silver church flagonSheffield plate beer tankard

One of Boulton's early efforts to market to the wealthy was a line of vases decorated with ormolu, milled gold amalgamated with mercury and applied to the item. Previously a French specialty, Boulton & Fothergill copied vase designs from classical Greek works and borrowed works of art from collectors, merchants, and sculptors so they could reproduce their design elements. Boulton sold several pieces to the Royal Family, and at Christie's auction house, but the English craze for ormolu ended almost as quickly as it had arisen and by the early-1770's the firm's stock far exceeded potential demand and many pieces had to be sold below cost in order to recoup at least some of its investment. Boulton never stopped taking orders for ormolu, but it was dropped from the company's official "catalog" in 1779.

Feathergill ormulu tea urn
Feathergill ormulu tea urn

Not all of Boulton's innovations were successful, however. With painter Francis Eginton, he created a process for the mechanical reproduction of paintings so the middle class could afford to own great works of art, but the concept was a failure from the start and Boulton eventually abandoned the idea. With James Keir, he produced an alloy that, according to their claims, would be ideal for sheathing wooden ships because it would not corrode in water. The British Admiralty rejected their claims, however, and the metal was eventually used to make sashes for Boulton's family home.

Steam Engine

In 1763, James Watt received a Newcomen Steam Engine that needed repair. While working on the engine Watt discovered how he could make it more efficient, and he secured a patent for his improved steam engine in 1769. Watt then secured financial backing from ironworks owner John Roebuck and spent the next few years building a working prototype and trying to sell his design. Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, and Boulton, to whom he owed 1,200, assumed his two-third's share in Watt's steam engine. Immediately recognizing the potential for Watt's engine as a power supply for his and other factories, Boulton made Watt a partner in the Soho Manufactory (Fothergill having made it very clear he wanted nothing to do with the steam engine) and the two began producing Watt Steam Engines, the majority of which were leased to coal mines, where they were used to pump water out of the mines.

Because the Soho Manufactory lacked the space and equipment necessary to mass produce the Watt Steam Engine, most of the engines sold by Boulton and Watt were assembled on site from parts acquired from several suppliers. The company made its profit through an ingenious scheme developed by Watt -- comparing the amount of coal used by the Watt engine with that used by the less-efficient Newcomen Engine and then requiring annual lease payments of one-third of the savings for 25 years. Before this scheme could be successful, however, Boulton had to convince the British Parliament to extend Watt's patent for that same 25 years to prevent competitors from copying the design and undercutting the lease price; it took a considerable amount of work and persuasion, but Boulton was ultimately successful and the partnership's monopoly was protected.

Recognizing the enormous industrial potential of steam power, Boulton insisted that Watt continue to not only improve his basic design but to find new uses for it as well. That insistence led to development of the rotary-motion steam engine, and, in 1785, a textile mill owned by Richard Arkwright became the first in the world to be powered by a steam engine. The Boulton-Watt partnership proved enormously successful for both men, and by the time their monopoly expired in 1800 they had sold approximately 450 steam engines.

Coinage

About 1786, Boulton began using steam engines to power coin minting machines, and before long he was supplying foreign governments with high-quality coins. In 1788, hoping to garner a contract for producing British coins, he established the Soho Mint as a separate entity within the Soho Manufactory. To combat the then all-too-common practice of coin counterfeiting, he introduced standard sizes for each denomination, and his exacting design and minting process insured that the quality of each coin minted was almost impossible to reproduce. His designs included reeded and lettered edges, and, later, a raised border. He also came up with a gauge that could quickly determine if any given coin was of proper dimension and weight, and introduced the practice of making the weight of copper coins proportional to their value. Although these standards earned him numerous contracts from foreign governments and major trading enterprises (such as the British East India Company), the British government did not become one of his customers until 1797, when the Royal Mint commissioned him to produce penny and twopenny pieces; in 1799 he was also contracted to produce the halfpence and the farthing. About 1800, Catherine the Great commissioned Boulton to supply coinmaking machinery for the Russian Mint in St. Petersburg, and it was for this project that he developed the world's first "in-line" manufacturing process, wherein a strip of metal enters one end of the manufacturing line and finished coins emerge from the other.

a twopenny piece produced by the Soho Mint
a twopenny piece produced by the Soho Mint

Lunar Society and Other Interests

Fascinated with all areas of science from an early age, Boulton helped found the Lunar Society of Birmingham in 1766. So named because it originally met on the night of the full moon, members of this group included James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Day, William Small, John Whitehurst, William Withering, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and Erasmus Darwin. The group was active in a variety of scientific investigations and met reguarly to discuss scientific progress until 1813, by which time most of its members had either died or moved away. The Society was formally dissolved that year and its assets were sold off.

Boulton took an active interest in the social health of Birmingham, serving on committees that oversaw development of the Birmingham Dispensary (which provided medicines and medical care for the poor) and the General Hospital, and chairing the committee which masterminded improvements to the city theatre. In a brief foray into politics, he served as High Sheriff of Staffordshire in 1794. An enthusiastic patron of the arts, he commissioned family portraits from some of the finest portrait painters of the age, and his Soho Manufactory was often likened to an art school, where promising apprentices received tuition in drawing and were encouraged to attend plays and exhibitions to develop their artistic sensibilities.

Matthew Boulton died of kidney failure at Soho House (his Handsworth, Birmingham residence) on August 17, 1809, and is buried at St. Mary's Church.

SEE ALSO
James Watt
Newcomen Steam Engine
Richard Arkwright
Joseph Priestley

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This page was last updated on June 04, 2017.