Part 2 – Matthew Boulton
IF I HAD to choose one person who made the greatest contribution to coin and medal manufacturing – including coin and medal die creation – it would be English manufacturer, engineer and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) . One of the greatest participants of the Industrial Revolution, he could be called “Master of Modern Minting,” and also “The Father of the Private Mint.”
He did more to develop coin and medal making technology than any other person in history. His activities in this field influenced every mint in existence, and every step in the production of coin and medal creation. He obtained his first coinage contract in 1786, established his own mint, the Soho Mint in 1789 and by 1791 had earned the reputation of being the most technically advanced mint in the world!
Boulton’s father owned a small metal products factory in Birmingham, which Matthew managed for ten years until his father died and he inherited at age 31. He expanded his product line from buttons, buckles, and toys to Sheffield and sterling silver plate, determined to become a great silversmith. But silver objects were not that profitable.
Matthew had lent money to Dr. John Roebuck in partnership with James Watt, inventor of the first successful steam engine. In payment of this debt, Boulton accepted part ownership of the steam engine patent. The steam engine needed improvement. Boulton convinced Watt to move to Birmingham, and together they would develop and market the steam engine commercially. This they did.
By 1775, six of Watt’s 14-year patent protection years had elapsed. Boulton lobbied Parliament for an extension of Watt’s patent to 1800. This proved prophetic for the coin and medal world. As Watt made improvements, Boulton sold the engines to a wide circle of users, more than 400 in the first decade. Boulton also made use of Watt’s machine in his own factories, particularly in the metal stamping of the small metal parts it had been manufacturing for decades.
Boulton also cast about for other means of using the power of the steam engine in contrast to the water power customarily employed in the small factories in and nearby Birmingham. One of those ideas was the striking of coins, which he embraced in the mid 1780s.
In Britain for the decades since the 1750s there was a shortage of minor coins to make change. So many fake and counterfeit coins were in circulation that the Royal Mint struck no copper coins from 1773 to 1821, making the matter even worse.
Merchants, in dire need to make change for their commerce, turned to having their own tokens made. These were supplied by an active cottage industry of die sinkers who cut dies and made tokens in a size similar to the halfpenny. Most of these diesinkers were located in the metalworking area around Birmingham. “Birmingham coiners” were somewhat of a term for false coin. Boulton, of course, was aware of this situation, but would have no part of striking false coins.
Boulton’s plan was to petition the British government to strike the national coins in copper to displace the circulating fakes and eliminate the need for merchant’s tokens. He obtained his first coinage contract in 1786 and within two years, when he established his Soho Mint, he had eight presses operating on coinage alone.
Boulton was successful then, as has come to be a universal rule in all business – get the most modern equipment and hire the most talented workmen. This he did in buying screw presses, then improving these until he had the capability of building his own as coining presses.
He had used local die engravers, but in 1789 he sought out the best engraver in the world at the time, he wanted the most accomplished engraver. He turned first to the Paris Mint and hired away Jean-Pierre Droz (1746-1823), a Swiss-born engraver of great talent for die engraving, but also of rare mechanical aptitude.
Droz had invented the first split collar (virole brisée) in 1783 for edge lettering and submits this to Paris Mint. At the Paris mint, Droz and mechanic there, Philippe Gengembre, devised a way to feed the blanks and remove the struck pieces while the press was still manually operated. Boulton hired Droz from the Paris Mint in 1789 to prepare dies, improve his equipment and increase production at the Soho Mint (thus Droz becoming the first factory artist).
At the Soho Mint, Droz not only engraved dies but advanced the technology around the steam-powered presses. There he developed and made full use of automatic feed and delivery systems while the presses were in operation. He engraved coin and medal patterns while improving Soho methods of coining.
An interesting historical note, Thomas Jefferson learned of Droz talents and offered Droz the opportunity to establish a new mint in America. He is offered the position of its first director, but Droz declined.
Still at the Soho Mint, Droz used Barton’s metal to strike the first medal in clad metal (made from silver strips rolled on a copper core), the George III Recovery Medal, 1789 (Brown 311). An assistant, M. Druet, was hired for Droz in 1790. His coin dies for the 1797 Bermuda penny were struck in quantity at Soho.
But somewhat unhappy in his position at Soho Mint and his relationship with Boulton, Droz returned to France (1799) to become General Administrator of the coins and medals, keeper of the mint museum, and consultant to mints of the world for coining and mint equipment.
To replace Droz, in 1793 Boulton hired German engraver Conrad Heinrich Kuchler (died 1810). Küchler was not as inventive as Droz, but aided Boulton in accomplishing the mechanization of coining. Küchler engraved the dies for the British cartwheel coinage and 34 medals while employed at the Soho Mint.
In 1790, Boulton learned of the die-engraving machine of Jean Baptiste Bartlemey Dupeyrat (1759-1834) and obtained one for his Soho Mint. It was utilized there to do what it did in other mints – reducing the main device from an oversize metal pattern, then employed hand engravers to add lettering and small symbols by hand punches.
Boulton is noted for expressing the wish in 1797, “I look to the time when it can cut the entire side of a coin or medal, not just the device.” This was not to happen until Victor Janvier invented his die engraver in 1899.
Soho Mint technicians continuously attempted to improve the Dupeyrat machine. When James Watt retired in 1819 from the Soho Mint, he took one of these machines to tinker with in his garret, attempting to improve upon it in his declining years.
In 1805, Boulton helped rebuild London’s Tower Mint, constructing all coining machinery and installing steam power. So efficient were his coining presses constructed at this time that they lasted seven decades – until 1882! – long outlasting the great innovator in the coin and medal field who died in 1809.
Boulton made tremendous improvements in diemaking, hubbing, blanking, coining, and striking at his Soho Mint in Birmingham including:
- His employment of Jean-Pierre Droz from the Paris Mint was an inspired step for many reasons: Droz prepared dies, improved equipment, and created new coining methods and processes at Soho Mint. He inspired Boulton and Watt as what could be done at a private mint. Droz became, in effect, the first factory artist in the coin and medal field.
- Boulton and Watt devised a way to apply their steam-powered engines to run screw presses, then available; also to make full use of automatic feed and delivery systems developed and brought to the Soho Mint by Droz.
- At the Soho Mint, Boulton developed the first edge thickening of blanks which he called “rimming” (elsewhere, including in the U.S., called upsetting). The treated blanks have a uniform roundness and a formed rim that aids coining; striking coins in coining presses could not be accomplished without this preparatory step in blank preparation.
- The Soho mint supplied blanks to mints throughout the world, including more than 20 million to the infant mint in the United States at Philadelphia.
- First to use clad strip, Barton’s metal, for a coin blank (in 1789) in cooperation with Droz.
- He built and sold coining equipment to mints of the world, often building complete plants, including Spain, Denmark and Russia.
- First edge lettering with raised lettering on a medal, struck at Soho Mint in Birmingham. He gave to each of the officers engaged in the Battle of Trafalgar a medal which bore a portrait of Lord Nelson. Around the medal was the edge lettering: TO THE HEROES OF TRAFALGAR FROM M BOULTON. This was accomplished by the segmented collar (virole brisée) developed by Droz.
A biographical book, Matthew Boulton, by H.W. Dickinson was published in 1937 by Cambridge University Press. But the most scholarly book on Boulton and the Soho Mint by Richard G. Doty was published in 1998 by the Smithsonian Institution, Spink and British Numismatic Society.