Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Boulton, Matthew
BOULTON, MATTHEW (1728–1809), engineer, was born in Birmingham 3 Sept. 1728, where his father, Matthew Boulton the elder, had long been carrying on the trade, according to Dr. Smiles, of a silver stamper and piercer. The Boultons were a Northamptonshire family, but John, the grandfather of the younger Matthew, settled in Lichfield, and Matthew the elder was sent to Birmingham to enter into business, in consequence of the reduced fortunes of the family. The younger Boulton entered his father's business early, and soon set himself to extend it. This he had succeeded in doing to a considerable extent, when in 1759 his father died. In the following year he married Anne Robinson of Lichfield, with whom he received a considerable dower. Being thus able to command additional capital, he determined to enlarge his operations still further, and with this view he founded the famous Soho works. About the same time he also entered into partnership with Mr. Fothergill. The works were opened in 1762, and soon obtained a reputation for work of a higher character than it was then usual to associate with the name of Birmingham. Boulton laid himself out to improve not only the workmanship, but the artistic merit of his wares, and for this purpose employed agents to procure for him the finest examples of art-work not only in metal, but in pottery and other materials, which he employed as models for his own productions.
The growth of the factory, and the consequent increased need for motive power more abundant than the water-power with which Soho was but scantily furnished, led Boulton to direct his thoughts to the steam engine, then only used for pumping. He himself made experiments, and constructed a model of an improved engine, but nothing came of it. Watt was then in partnership with Roebuck, endeavouring unsuccessfully to perfect his engine. Roebuck was a friend of Boulton, and told him of Watt and his experiments. Two visits paid by Watt to Soho in 1767 and 1768 made him anxious to secure the help of Boulton and to avail himself of the resources in Soho in perfecting the engine, while Boulton was on his side desirous of getting Watt's aid in the construction of an engine for the works. For some time negotiations as to a partnership between the two went on, but they came to nothing until Roebuck's failure in 1772. As a set-off against a claim of 1,200l., Boulton then accepted Roebuck's share in the engine patent, and entered into partnership with Watt. In consequence of Boulton's advice the act of parliament was procured by which the patent rights were extended for a period of twenty-four years (with the six expired years of the original patent, thirty years in all). The history of the difficulties which were vanquished by the mechanical skill of one partner and by the energy of the other will more fitly be related in the account of Watt [see Watt, James], but it may be said here that if the completion of the steam engine was due to Watt, its introduction at that time was due to Boulton. He devoted to the enterprise not only all the capital he possessed, but all he could raise from any source whatever, and indeed he brought himself to the verge of bankruptcy before the work was completed and the engine a commercial success. He kept up the drooping spirits of his partner, and would never allow him to despond, when he was almost inclined to despair of his own invention. Of course at last he had his reward, but it was not until after six or seven years' labour and anxiety, and when he had passed his sixtieth year. Dr. Smiles gives 1787 as the year when Watt began to realise a profit from the engine, but the greater outlay for which Boulton had been responsible made it some time later before he got clear from his liabilities and began to make a profit.
The reform of the copper coinage was another important movement with which Boulton was connected in the latter part of his life. In 1788 he set up several coining presses at Soho to be worked by steam (he patented his press in 1790), and after making large quantities of coins for the East India Company, for foreign governments, and for some of the colonies, he in 1797 undertook the production of a new copper coinage for Great Britain. He also supplied machinery to the new mint on Tower Hill, commenced in 1805, and it was not until the reorganisation of the mint machinery in 1882 that Boulton's press was finally abandoned.
In the scientific society of his time Boulton held a prominent place. Among his intimates were Franklin, Priestley, Darwin, Wedgwood, and Edgeworth; he was a fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Lunar Society, a provincial scientific society of note. His house at Soho was the meeting-place for all scientific men, both English and foreign. He died there 18 Aug. 1809.
[Smiles's Lives of Boulton and Watt, 1865; Muirhead's Life of Watt, London, 1858; Gent. Mag. 1809, 780, 883, 979.]