Matthew Boulton

English manufacturer and business partner of Scottish engineer James Watt, Matthew Boulton FRS sadly passed away 17 August 1809). Born in Birmingham, England in September 1728 Boulton was the son of a Birmingham Manufacturer and became interested in the scientific advances of his times from an early age and eventually went on to inherit his late Father’s business when he was 31 years old and thereafter expanded it considerably, consolidating operations at the Soho Manufactory, built by him near Birmingham. At Soho, he adopted the latest techniques, branching into silver plate, ormolu and other decorative arts.In the final quarter of the 18th century the partnership between Boulton and James Watt installed hundreds of Boulton & Watt steam engines, which were a great advance on the state of the art, making possible the mechanisation of factories and mills. Boulton applied modern techniques to the minting of coins, striking millions of pieces for Britain and other countries, and supplying the Royal Mint with up-to-date equipment.

He discarded theories that electricity was a manifestation of the human soul, writing “we know tis matter & tis wrong to call it Spirit”. His interest brought him into contact with other enthusiasts such as John Whitehurst, who also became a member of the Lunar Society. In 1758 the Pennsylvania printer Benjamin Franklin, the leading experimenter in electricity, journeyed to Birmingham during one of his lengthy stays in Britain; Boulton met him, and introduced him to his friends. Boulton worked with Franklin in efforts to contain electricity within a Leyden jar, and when the printer needed new glass for his “glassychord” (a mechanised version of musical glasses) he obtained it from Boulton. Despite time constraints imposed on him by the expansion of his business, Boulton continued his “philosophical” work (as scientific experimentation was then called). He wrote in his notebooks observations on the freezing and boiling point of mercury, on people’s pulse rates at different ages, on the movements of the planets, and on how to make sealing wax and disappearing ink. However,Erasmus Darwin, another fellow enthusiast who became a member of the Lunar Society, wrote to him in 1763, “As you are now become a sober plodding Man of Business, I scarcely dare trouble you to do me a favour in the … philosophical way.”

Soon Boulton, Whitehurst, Keir, Darwin, Watt (after his move to Birmingham), potter Josiah Wedgwood and clergyman and chemist Joseph Priestley began to meet informally in the late 1750s. This evolved into a monthly meeting near the full moon, providing light to journey home afterwards, a pattern common for clubs in Britain at the time. The group eventually dubbed itself the “Lunar Society”, and following the death of member Dr William Small in 1775, who had informally coordinated communication between the members, Boulton took steps to put the Society on a formal footing. They met on Sundays, beginning with dinner at 2 p.m., and continuing with discussions until at least 8.While not a formal member of the Lunar Society, Sir Joseph Banks was active in it. In 1768 Banks sailed with Captain James Cook to the South Pacific, and took with him green glass earrings made at Soho to give to the natives. In 1776 Captain Cook ordered an instrument from Boulton, most likely for use in navigation. Boulton generally preferred not to take on lengthy projects, and he warned Cook that its completion might take years. In June 1776 Cook left on the voyage on which he was killed almost three years later, and Boulton’s records show no further mention of the instrument. In addition to the scientific discussions and experiments conducted by the group, Boulton had a business relationship with some of the members. Watt and Boulton were partners for a quarter century. Boulton purchased vases from Wedgwood’s pottery to be decorated with ormolu, and contemplated a partnership with him. Keir was a long-time supplier and associate of Boulton, though Keir never became his partner as he hoped. In 1785 both Boulton and Watt were elected as Fellows of the Royal Society. According to Whitehurst, who wrote to congratulate Boulton, not a single vote was cast against him. Though Boulton hoped his activities for the Lunar Society would “prevent the decline of a Society which I hope will be lasting”as members died or moved away they were not replaced. In 1813, four years after his death, the Society was dissolved and a lottery was held to dispose of its assets.

Boulton became associated with James Watt after Watt’s business partner, John Roebuck, was unable to pay a debt to Boulton, who accepted Roebuck’s share of Watt’s patent as settlement. He then successfully lobbied Parliament to extend Watt’s patent for an additional 17 years, enabling the firm to market Watt’s steam engine. The firm installed hundreds of Boulton & Watt steam engines in Britain and abroad, initially in mines and then in factories. Boulton was a key member of the Lunar Society, a group of Birmingham-area men prominent in the arts, sciences, and theology. Members included Watt, Erasmus Darwin, josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley. The Society met each month near the full moon. Members of the Society have been given credit for developing concepts and techniques in science, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transport that laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. Boulton founded the Soho Mint, to which he soon adapted steam power. He sought to improve the poor state of Britain’s coinage, and after several years of effort obtained a contract in 1797 to produce the first British copper coinage in a quarter century. His “cartwheel” pieces were well-designed and difficult to counterfeit, and included the first striking of the large copper British penny, which continued to be coined until decimalisationin 1971. He retired in 1800, though continuing to run his mint, and died in 1809. His image appears alongside James Watt on the Bank of England’s new Series F £50 note.

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