Before and after alterations made to Boulton & Watt valves. From the beautifully illustrated notebooks of Henry Wright.


Before and after alterations made to Boulton & Watt valves. From the beautifully illustrated notebooks of Henry Wright.
Before and after alterations made to Boulton & Watt valves. From the beautifully illustrated notebooks of Henry Wright.

It would be a fair bet to assume that the vast majority of mechanical engineers have heard and know something of James Watt but what of his somewhat overshadowed partner Matthew Boulton? Since 1825 Watt has been honoured in Westminster Abbey, now Boulton is to receive the same recognition. So who is Matthew Boulton?

The son of a Birmingham manufacturer of small metal products, Boulton managed the family business during the 1750’s and 1760’s; expanding it and consolidating operations at the Soho Manufactory. Part of Boulton’s success can be attributed to his use of modern manufacturing techniques which aided efficiency and production; as well as widening his product range into decorative metals. He is credited with bringing to the market ‘exclusive’ goods previously only afforded by the rich, his production methods made them affordable to the newly establishing middle/mercantile class. He was a man who understood the power of marketing, he sold his wares by giving tours of his Manufactory and through his association with the potter Josiah Wedgewood- he understood that creating a lifestyle around a product made it more attractive. Indeed tours became so popular that they had to stop as not only were they disturbing business but espionage was a reoccurring danger! It was also home to the first steam-powered mint, whose presses were subsequently used at the first Birmingham Mint; Boulton struck coins for the British East India Company, the governments of Sierra Leone and Russia and producing high-quality planchets (blank coins) to be struck by national mints elsewhere.

Mr Oldham's accomodating clutch, Bank of Ireland from a site visit of Boulton & Watt machinery by Henry Wright
Mr Oldham’s accomodating clutch, Bank of Ireland from a site visit of Boulton & Watt machinery by Henry Wright
Matthew Boulton
Matthew Boulton

At this time, Watt was partnered to John Roebuck (developer of industrial-scale manufacture of sulphuric acid), who owed a debt of £1,200 (the equivalent of £76,428.00 in 2005) to Boulton which he could not pay. Instead, Boulton accepted Roebuck’s two third share of Watt’s patent. It was at this point that the fate of Watt’s invention changed. Due to be released from the protection of patent, Boulton successfully lobbied Parliament to extend it for an additional 17 years until 1800. This protection enabled the firm to market Watt’s engine as Boulton & Watt and corner the market; some say to the detrimental effect of other innovation/inventors.

Boulton had known Watt, and his invention, prior to them becoming partners; Boulton needed a solution to his hydropower limitations at Soho and recognised that Watt’s engine could provide this. The invention was also known about in the mining community, they had been hoping it would be marketed because the existing Newcomen engine was struggling with modern mining. Therefore, it was not without a shrewd business head that he accepted the patent! Boulton, Watt and  iron master John Wilkinson got the engine ready for market. Eventually, engines were sold all over the world. The geographic spread of these, even within the UK, is impressive with the notebooks of Henry Wright detailing many, as well as recording Boulton’s marine boiler trials. If James Watt’s improved Newcomen steam engine powered the Industrial Revolution, then it can reasonably be claimed that Matthew Boulton sold it.

Privately, Boulton was an enthusiastic amateur scientist, being a key member of the Birmingham-based arts, theology and science discussion and experimental group the Lunar Society. Other members included ceramicist Josiah Wedgwood and James Watt; Boulton had a business relationship with several members and after 1775 he became the Societies centre pin. The members have been styled the fathers of the Industrial Revolution due to their pioneering work in experimental chemistry, physics, engineering and medicine, combined with leadership in manufacturing and commerce, and with their political and social ideals.

He also supported Birmingham with his philanthropy; Boulton conceived of the idea to hold a music festival in Birmingham to raise funds for a hospital in 1768, the hospital opened in 1779 and the festival became an annual event for over 150 years. Boulton also helped build the General Dispensary, where outpatient treatment could be obtained. He helped establish the New Street Theatre in 1774, writing that having a theatre encouraged well-to-do visitors to come to Birmingham to spend more money than they would have otherwise. He was also involved in law and order, serving on a committee to organise volunteers to patrol the streets at night to reduce crime and providing money for militia weapons. In 1794 he was elected High Sheriff of Staffordshire.

Henry Wright worked for Boulton & Watt, details of his notebooks and the engines they cover can be found on our catalogue.

Invitation to the dedication of Matthew Boulton

Archive, Institution of Mechanical Engineers

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