Matthew Boulton was an English manufacturer and business partner of Scottish engineer James Watt. In the final quarter of the 18th century, the partnership 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, supplying the Royal Mint with up-to-date equipment. Born in Birmingham, he was the son of a Birmingham manufacturer of small metal products who died when Boulton was 31. By Boulton had managed the business for several years, thereafter expanded it consolidating operations at the Soho Manufactory, built by him near Birmingham. At Soho, he adopted the latest techniques, branching into silver plate and other decorative arts, he became associated with James Watt when 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 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 in mines and in factories. Boulton was a key member of the Lunar Society, a group of Birmingham-area men prominent in the arts and theology. Members included 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, manufacturing and transport that laid the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution. Boulton founded the Soho Mint, he sought to improve the poor state of Britain's coinage, 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, included the first striking of the large copper British penny, which continued to be coined until decimalisation in 1971.
He retired in 1800, though continuing to run his mint, died in 1809. His image appears alongside his partner James Watt on the Bank of England's current Series F £50 note. Birmingham had long been a centre of the ironworking industry. In the early 18th century the town entered a period of expansion as iron working became easier and cheaper with the transition from charcoal to coke as a means of smelting iron. Scarcity of wood in deforested England and discoveries of large quantities of coal in Birmingham's county of Warwickshire and the adjacent county of Staffordshire speeded the transition. Much of the iron was forged in small foundries near Birmingham in the Black Country, including nearby towns such as Smethwick and West Bromwich; the resultant thin iron sheets were transported to factories around Birmingham. With the town far from the sea and great rivers and with canals not yet built, metalworkers concentrated on producing small valuable pieces buttons and buckles. Frenchman Alexander Missen wrote that while he had seen excellent cane heads, snuff boxes and other metal objects in Milan, "the same can be had cheaper and better in Birmingham".
These small objects came to be known as "toys", their manufacturers as "toymakers". Boulton was a descendant of families from around Lichfield, his great-great-great-great grandfather, Rev. Zachary Babington, having been Chancellor of Lichfield. Boulton's father named Matthew and born in 1700, moved to Birmingham from Lichfield to serve an apprenticeship, in 1723 he married Christiana Piers; the elder Boulton was a toymaker with a small workshop specialising in buckles. Matthew Boulton was born in 1728, their third child and the second of that name, the first Matthew having died at the age of two in 1726; the elder Boulton's business prospered after young Matthew's birth, the family moved to the Snow Hill area of Birmingham a well-to-do neighbourhood of new houses. As the local grammar school was in disrepair Boulton was sent to an academy in Deritend, on the other side of Birmingham. At the age of 15 he left school, by 17 he had invented a technique for inlaying enamels in buckles that proved so popular that the buckles were exported to France reimported to Britain and billed as the latest French developments.
On 3 March 1749 Boulton married Mary Robinson, a distant cousin and the daughter of a successful mercer, wealthy in her own right. They lived with the bride's mother in Lichfield, moved to Birmingham, where the elder Matthew Boulton made his son a partner at the age of 21. Though the son signed business letters "from father and self", by the mid-1750s he was running the business; the elder Boulton retired in 1757 and died in 1759. The Boultons had three daughters in the early 1750s. Mary Boulton's health deteriorated, she died in August 1759. Not long after her death Boulton began to woo her sister Anne. Marriage with a deceased wife's sister was forbidden by ecclesiastical law, though permitted by common law. Nonetheless, they married on 25 June 1760 at Rotherhithe. Eric Delieb, who wrote a book on Boulton's silver, with a biographical sketch, suggests that the marriage celebrant, Rev. James Penfold, an impoverished curate, was bribed. Boulton advised another man, seeking to wed his late wife's sister: "I advise you to say nothing of your intentions but to go and snugly to Scotland or some obscure corner of London, suppose Wapping, there take lod
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