Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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Boulton and Watt

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1786. Boulton and Watt engine. Exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
1786. Boulton and Watt engine. Exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
1786. Boulton and Watt engine. Exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
1786. Boulton and Watt engine. Exhibit at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
1798. William Murdoch's gasometer at the Soho Foundry.
1810. Bell crank engine at London Science Museum.

Boulton and Watt of Soho Manufactory and Soho Foundry, Birmingham.

1762 Matthew Boulton purchased the lease of the Soho, a hamlet in the parish of Handsworth where there was a small house and a mill.

1764 He laid the foundations of his manufacturing establishment there and completed the work the following year for a cost of £9,000. He moved his business Boulton and Fothergill, a partnership with John Fothergill, to the new premises. This became the Soho Manufactory.

1767 Boulton made a steam engine based on the designs of Thomas Savery.

For some years he had contact with James Watt but it was only when Watt's backer, Dr Roebuck, became bankrupt that Boulton took over his share in Watt's engine. In 1774 Watt moved to Birmingham

1775 Watt's patent was extended for twenty-five years to 1800 by act of parliament, and the Boulton and Watt partnership began. The partnership was to make steam engines at the Soho Manufactory, near Birmingham.

The first major market for Boulton and Watt's engines was the mining industry in Cornwall. Boulton saw the opportunity in the growing cotton-spinning industry and urged Watt to develop a rotative engine.

1778 The Smethwick Engine. (Exhibit at Birmingham Thinktank museum)

John Wilkinson became the main supplier of cylinders because he could bore them so accurately. The Eagle Foundry and William Whitmore at Birmingham were used to make the heating cases; Izons of West Bromwich supplied tubes; piston rods came from James Spedding of Whitehaven. Heavy parts, such as the flywheels of rotary engines, were obtained locally by the customer.

1783 The first rotatory engine was installed at Wilkinson's Bradley Works.

1785 A rotatory steam engine was built by Boulton and Watt to grind malt at Whitbread's London brewery. This is now the world's oldest working engine of its type, and is housed at the Powerhouse Museum, Australia. See Boulton and Watt: 1785 Whitbread Engine

1786 the Boulton and Watt assay office in Cornwall was closed

Many of the main components were made by external suppliers, such as Thomas Horton who, by the 1790s, had a virtual monopoly in the supply of boilers for these engines[1]

1796 A purpose-built steam engine factory, Soho Foundry, was opened to allow the partners to make and sell complete engines, rather than sub-contracting the manufacture of components and reliance on collecting royalties. Watt effectively retired from active business, though he remained a partner with Boulton and their sons.

By 1800 the number of rotatory engines sold per year far exceeded that of pumping engines, although smaller in terms of horsepower

1800 The partnership was passed to their sons Matthew Robinson Boulton and James Watt (Junior).

1801 Built their factory on fire-proof lines using cast iron beams.

1810 John Southern was admitted as a partner in the firm, and would receive one-sixth of the profits.

1812 Another working Boulton and Watt beam engine, dating from 1812, can be found at Crofton Pumping Station.

1820 Engine for Grand Junction Waterworks Co's Chelsea works, moved to Kew Bridge in 1840, and now preserved at Kew Bridge Steam Museum

1821 Photo and article in The Engineer (11th June 1920) of a beam engine for the Bristol Distilling Co.

A secondhand Boulton and Watt beam engine was advertised for sale in 'The Courier', 12th August 1822. It had a 53"(?) 'steam case cylinder' and cast iron beam, and was standing on the banks of the Somersetshire Coal Canal at Combhay (Combe Hay)

1838-42 See 1839-1842 Marine Engine Makers for details of engines made for the Admiralty.

1843 Oscillating engines of the Sicilian steamer 'Antelope'. [2]

1849 After James Watt (Junior)'s death, The Soho was let to various persons.

1849 The company changed its name to James Watt and Co[3]

A small museum was established at the works by the later Manager, W. H. Darlington. The contents were later sold to George Tangye and housed at Tangyes Cornwall Works.[4]

1911 The firm left an extremely detailed archive of its activities, which was given to the city of Birmingham in 1911.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • The Engineer of 28th July 1876 p60
  • The Engineer of 11th June 1920 p597
  • The Steam Engine in Industry by George Watkins in two volumes. Moorland Publishing. 1978. ISBN 0-903485-65-6
  • Biography of Matthew Boulton, ODNB
  • 'The Soho Engine Works 1796-1895' by Laurence Ince, ISSES, 2001
  1. Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment edited by Kenneth Quickenden, Sally Baggott, Malcolm Dick
  2. Mechanics Magazine Volume XXXIX (39) 1843 Pt2 15th July
  3. History and Directory of Birmingham, 1849
  4. [1] American Machinist, 5 May 1910, pp.826-831