Portrait by Lemuel Francis Abbott

MATTHEW BOULTON (1718-1809) was Birmingham’s foremost entrepreneur and industrialist, best known for his partnership with James Watt in developing steam engine technology, heralding a technological revolution in 18th century England.  In fact, Boulton was far more than this. His combination of engineering know-how, entrepreneurial ambition and an ability to inspire the brightest minds to collaborate, gives him a unique status in Birmingham’s history books.

Meeting monthly on a full moon, his Lunar Society brought together scientists, engineers, doctors, botanists, geologists, poets, philosophers – all the sharpest brains of the day – to develop and challenge each other’s theories as they explored whichever aspect of the natural world they chose to focus upon.  Future blogs will look at the many developments he was involved in, but his establishment of the Soho Mint next to his vast manufactory meant that he was literally making money – much to the fury of the nation’s counterfeiters who preferred the less standardised and easily forged coinage of London’s Royal Mint.

Boulton described himself as “selling what all the world desires – power.”  But to him, ‘power’ wasn’t about politics or finance (in fact he often had money worries), it was about inventiveness.  His ability to apply clear thought and scientific knowledge to engineering problems, and to empower others to work with him to perfect each stage of a new invention, was second-to-none.   So yes, he sold power, but he also shared it with other Lunar Society members, with his workers (they enjoyed an early form of sick pay), and with the community of Birmingham which greatly benefited from his businesses. Liz John

Liz’s play ‘Power’ can be seen as part of Power of Invention, BOLDtext Playwrights’ latest site-specific show which tells the story of the Lunar Society and their families, servants and workers, and reveals how their lives shaped our own.  The production is a collaboration with Birmingham Museums Trust, and funded by Arts Council England and Sir Barry Jackson Trust.

Performed in the gardens of Matthew Boulton’s home, Soho House in Handsworth, the show is on 30th, 31st July and 7th August, at 12, 3 & 6pm on each day.


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