Matthew Boulton was the son of a Birmingham silver stamper and piecer, and succeeded to his father's business, building up a great establishment, which, as well as its proprietor, was well known in Watt's time.
Watt's estimate of the value of Boulton's ingenuity and talent was well founded. Boulton had shown himself a good scholar, and had acquired considerable knowledge of the languages and of the sciences, particularly of mathematics, after leaving the school from which he graduated into the shop when still a boy. In the shop he soon introduced a number of valuable improvements, and he was always on the lookout for improvements made by others, with a view to their introduction in his business. He was a man of the modern style, and never permitted competitors to excel him in any respect, without the strongest efforts to retain his leading position. He always aimed to earn a reputation for good work, as well as to make money. His father's workshop was at Birmingham; but Boulton, after a time, found that his rapidly increasing business would compel him to find room for the erection of a more extensive establishment, and he secured land at Soho, two miles distant from Birmingham, and there erected his new manufactory, about 1762.
The business was, at first, the manufacture of ornamental metal ware, such as metal buttons, buckles, watch chains, and light filigree and inlaid work. The manufacture of gold and silver plated ware was soon added, and this branch of business gradually developed into a very extensive manufacture of works of art. Boulton copied fine work wherever he could find it, and often borrowed vases, statuettes, and bronzes of all kinds from the nobility of England, and even from the queen, from which to make copies. The manufacture of inexpensive clocks, such as are now well known throughout the world as an article of American trade, was begun by Boulton. He made some fine astronomical and valuable ornamental clocks, which were better appreciated on the Continent than in England. The business of the Soho manufactory in a few years became so extensive, that its goods were known to every civilized nation, and its growth, under the management of the enterprising, conscientious, and ingenious Boulton, more than kept pace with the accumulation of capital; and the proprietor found himself, by his very prosperity, often driven to the most careful manipulation of his assets, and to making free use of his credit.
Boulton had a remarkable talent for making valuable acquaintances, and for making the most of advantages accruing thereby. In 1758 he made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, who then visited Soho; and in 1766 these distinguished men, who were then unaware of the existence of James Watt, were corresponding, and, in their letters, discussing the applicability of steam power to various useful purposes. Between the two a new steam engine was designed, and a model was constructed by Boulton, which was sent to Franklin and exhibited by him in London.
It was in November, 1774, that Watt finally announced to His old partner, Dr. Roebuck, the successful trial of the Kilmeil engine. He did not write with the usual enthusiasm and extravagance of the inventor, for his frequent disappointments and prolonged suspense had very thoroughly extinguished his vivacity.
] He simply wrote: "The fire engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made; and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial to me."
In the construction and erection of his engines, Watt still had great difficulty in finding skillful workmen to make the parts with accuracy, to fit them with care, and to erect them properly when once finished. And the fact that both Newcomen and Watt met with such serious trouble, indicates that, even had the engine been designed earlier, it is quite unlikely that the world would have seen the steam-engine a success until this time, when mechanics were just acquiring the skill requisite for its construction. But, on the other hand, it is not at all improbable that, had the mechanics of an earlier period been as skillful and as well educated in the manual niceties of their business, the steam-engine might have been much earlier brought into use.
The history of the steam engine is from this time a history of the work of the firm of Boulton & Watt. Nearly every successful and important invention which marked the history of steam power for many years originated in the fertile brain of James Watt.