Investigating and communicating the historical significance of Matthew Boulton (1728-1809)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Languages Cultures Art History & Music


In 2009 the city of Birmingham will mark the bicentenary of the death of one of its most historically important inhabitants, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809). Two major exhibitions will be opened, new internet resources will be made available, books will be published, and an international conference will be held. In order to inform these bicentenary events and maximise their impact, a series of research workshops will be held by Boulton experts in 2007-2008, bringing together academics, curators, archivists and librarians from Britain and abroad. Knowledge and expertise will be shared as the workshops explore Boulton's historical significance and refine plans to celebrate his life in 2009.

In 1762, Matthew Boulton established a manufactory at Soho in Birmingham that, by 1767, was the largest in the world. He used division of labour on a new scale to mass-produce a range of metal products. Between 1775 and 1800, Boulton and James Watt held a monopoly on the production of the first rotary steam engines that could drive machinery and power Britain's accelerating industrialisation. But, as well as playing key roles in revolutionising industry's organisation and technology, Boulton also mass produced visual art on an unprecedented scale. Aiming to satisfy demand for luxury goods, he brought together artists, artisans and engineers from across Europe to design and manufacture high quality silverware and ormolu at home and abroad. Then, in the late-1780s, Boulton established a multi-skilled international team in Birmingham that developed the world's first steam-driven minting technology, producing millions of coins and trade tokens for use across the world. Much of this new, and difficult to counterfeit, money was designed for Boulton by leading European medallists like Kuchler, Ponthon, Dumarest, and Droz. Boulton's minting project put mass-produced visual art into millions of people's pockets, but also facilitated global trade and the emergence of capitalist wage economies.

As well as being a ground-breaking industrialist and entrepreneur, Boulton was a key member of British and international networks of scientists, theologians, artists, entrepreneurs, engineers, bankers, and politicians whose collaborations contributed significantly to the advancement of knowledge in diverse areas of human endeavour. His regular correspondents included the likes of John Flaxman (the leading British sculptor), Erasmus Darwin (the botanist and grandfather of Charles Darwin), Antoine Lavoisier (who discovered oxygen), and Benjamin Franklin (one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America). Boulton has become known as 'The Father of Birmingham', but his legacies are of lasting international significance to the arts, sciences, trade and industry.


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