Matthew Boulton Biography

Matthew Boulton
Fellow of the Royal Society

Matthew Boulton was an English innovator in the field of metal products manufacturing. He modernised the metal products industry and, with James Watt,developed an improved steam engine that enabled factories and mills to mechanize their operations.

Boulton followed in his father’s footsteps
Matthew Boulton’s father, a manufacturer of small metal products, died when Boulton was 31 years old. Matthew carried on his father’s business, adding silver plate, ornamentation, and other decorative arts to the product lines he inherited from his father. Boulton’s base of operations was known as Soho Manufactory, near his birthplace of Birmingham England.

Boulton partners with James Watt
Ironically, the partnership that gave the world Boulton & Watt steam engines came about by happenstance. Boulton had lent money to John Roebuck, a fellow inventor who shared patent rights in a steam engine patent with James Watt. When Roebuck was unable to repay the loan, Boulton accepted the assignment of Roebuck’s patent rights in the steam engine patent in lieu of repayment.

Boulton shrewdly exploited the Roebuck-Watt patent, persuading Parliament to extend the patent’s protection for an additional seventeen years. This extension enabled Boulton and Watt to work together to enhance Watt’s steam engine work up to that point. Working from Boulton’s Soho facilities, Watt developed an engine that used 75% less fuel than existing steam engines.

Boulton and Watt worked together to market the new engine. They provided installation services for their engines in mines and other industrial locations and licensed their patent to the owners for a fee based on how much fuel they would save.

Boulton and the modern mint
Steam engine development was an important part of Boulton’s success, but it was by no means his only significant accomplishment. In 1797, Boulton landed a contract the produce the first new copper coins of the British realm in twenty-five years. His coins were beautiful and hard to copy; he was responsible for the first strike of the British copper penny.

Boulton’s last days
When their steam engine patent expired, Boulton and Watt retired and turned over their respective businesses to their sons. Boulton, however, continued to work until his 80th year, visiting the mint to watch the coins being made toward the end of his career. Matthew Boulton died after an illness of the kidneys in August 1809, and was laid to rest at St. Mary’s Church, Handsworth, in Birmingham.