Boulton, Matthew 1728 - 1809

English; British

(1728-1809) Engineer and Businessman

Matthew Boulton, son of Matthew Boulton, was born on the 14th September 1728, in Birmingham. Matthew joined his father's toy trade on leaving school and is said to have produced an enamelled or inlaid buckle when only seventeen years old, which contributed to the expansion of his father's business. At the age of twenty-one he became a partner in the business and his father entrusted the management to him.

In 1762 Boulton built the Soho manufactory near Birmingham. The factory produced small metal articles such as gilt and silver buttons and buckles, Sheffield plate, and a variety of other items. In 1762 he formed a partnership with John Fothergill, which lasted until 1781 after near bankruptcy. The business on which Boulton eventually focused most attention was his partnership with James Watt, whom he met in 1768. The need for a power source for his factory stirred Boulton’s interest in Watt’s invention. When the industrialist John Roebuck went bankrupt, Boulton accepted Roebuck’s share in Watt’s first steam-engine patent (1769) as repayment of a debt. In 1775 he and Watt became partners in the steam-engine business, obtaining a 25-year extension of the patent. Assisted by the engineer and inventor William Murdock, they established the steam-engine industry by initially erecting pumping engines to drain the Cornish tin mines. Boulton foresaw great industrial demand for steam power and urged Watt to design the double-acting rotative engine, patented in 1782, and the Watt engine (1788) for driving the lapping machines at his factory.

While the steam engine business was the most lucrative of Boulton's business adventures, it was the mint that appears to have given him most satisfaction. A mint to supply copper coinage to the government was established at Soho Manufactory. Towards the end of the eighteenth century Boulton undertook the supply of complete mints for overseas customers, the first one being the imperial mint in St Petersburg. Other orders followed and one of his last commissions before his death was the new Royal Mint in London.

Boulton was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1785. In addition, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1783 and was a member of the Society of Civil Engineers from 1792. In 1800 he became a proprietor of the Royal Institution. By 1800, when Boulton’s son Matthew Robinson Boulton took over his father’s share of the business, almost 500 steam engines had been installed in the British Isles and abroad. Boulton died of kidney failure at Soho House, Handsworth, Birmingham, on 17 August 1809.