Matthew Boulton was born on Monday 3rd September 1728 in Birmingham and died just short of his 81st birthday on Thursday 17th August 1809 in that same city. In between these two events he made a tremendous impact on the life of his time – an impact that remains to this day.
After managing his father’s hardware business, 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 the late 1760s Boulton was producing a huge range of silverware using water-powered machinery. The down-side of this was that all the pieces had to go to Chester to be assayed. That cost money so he campaigned for, and established, an independent Assay Office in Birmingham. It opened in 1773.
In 1768 Boulton made the acquaintance of James Watt. 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 that same year – 1769 – Josiah Wedgwood described Matthew as the ‘First Manufacturer in England’.
James Watt added to this in 1773 when he said that ‘Mr. Boulton was not only an ingenious mechanick …. but possessed in a high degree the faculty of rendering any new invention of his own or others useful to the publick,’
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, in 1778, the Watt engine for driving the lapping machines at his factory.