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Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment

Reviewer(s):Martello, Robert

Published by EH.Net (July 2013)
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Kenneth Quickenden, Sally Baggott and Malcolm Dick, editors, Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment.? Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013.? xviii + 294 pp.? $125 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4094-2218-1.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert Martello, Olin College of Engineering.

Matthew Boulton?s name triggers an immediate connection to the Boulton and Watt steam engine.? This epic invention vaulted Boulton and his partner James Watt into the pantheon of innovators who helped inaugurate the Industrial Revolution, and most studies credit the partners’ success to their complementary skills and teamwork.? After all, Boulton discovered, financed, and promoted Watt, which enabled the brilliant Scottish inventor to develop and improve his technical creation.? This well-told tale oversimplifies Boulton?s record of technical and managerial techniques and achievements, which stretch well beyond steam engines.

In Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment, Kenneth Quickenden (Birmingham Institute of Art and Design), Sally Baggott (Research Facilitator of the University of Birmingham’s College of Arts and Law), and Malcolm Dick (Director of the Centre for West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham) present an array of perspectives on Boulton’s life, legacy, and career, highlighting his multifaceted impacts upon the Industrial Revolution, the city of Birmingham, and the larger society of the English-speaking world.? This edited volume consists of an introduction and fifteen chapters that emerged from a 2009 conference run in Boulton?s home city of Birmingham to mark the 200th anniversary of his death.

Matthew Boulton reads like a set of refereed journal papers.? The introduction offers a brief understanding of Boulton?s life and context and standalone chapters make a number of independent analyses, but the book lacks a conclusion and overarching take-home message.? Fortunately, the individual chapters draw analytical techniques from disciplines ranging from archaeology to the history of science and technology, cultural history, art history, and others.? While few readers will find all of these chapters relevant, there is something for everyone.? An interdisciplinary perspective might have suggested new directions for study and a more nuanced and connected analysis, but the volume?s multidisciplinary approach still offers a compelling testament to Boulton?s diverse interests, activities, and impacts.

The wide-ranging chapters can be grouped into three broad categories.? The largest category deals with technological issues and some of the products manufactured by Boulton.? His famous steam engine, for example, succeeded for thermodynamic reasons not understood at the time, but Boulton?s scientific notes and experimental approach refute the belief that he subcontracted all technical issues to Watt.? Similarly, his silver production illustrates how his proto-industrial operations unsuccessfully challenged the hegemony of London?s silverworking guilds.? Even the evolving architectural design of Boulton?s manufactory offers clues regarding his business?s increasing size, diversity, and sophistication.? Other chapters investigate aspects of his ?mechanical? paintings, minted copper items, and technical innovation style; and one chapter even poses the question ?Was Matthew Boulton a Scientist??? We are left with the understanding that he was a scientist-entrepreneur whose genius lay ?between the abstract and the entrepreneurial? (p. 58): he was a master of productive risk taking, experimentation, and transferring innovations from one field to another, and used his technical knowledge to effectively promote his firm to clients, lawmakers, and potential employees.

A second set of chapters explores managerial and networking topics.? These chapters assert that Boulton’s reputation as a gifted manager-entrepreneur is well deserved.? For example, two chapters investigate his relationship with his foremen and with the workers in the mint.? Together they paint a picture of Boulton’s deft managerial tightrope walking, as he used incentives and a positive work environment to maintain the highest possible output quality without relinquishing his total control over intellectual property or shop discipline.? Other chapters highlight aspects of his business operations such as his successful campaign to lobby for an assaying office in Birmingham and his productive relationship with Jewish merchants.

Finally, several chapters untangle questions related to Boulton?s values and legacy.? Two chapters explore the importance of Enlightenment ideals in Boulton’s decision-making: many of his actions were not only oriented at profit, but also at his mission to ?civilize? Birmingham.? These efforts ultimately failed, and even though his workers produced innumerable products of a ?refined? nature, they were ?immune to the cultural messages enshrined in such articles? (p. 30).? Other chapters deal with Boulton’s pictorial legacy and posthumous commemoration; fitting topics for a man so concerned with self-promotion.

What is the net impact of all of these studies?? Matthew Boulton portrays a competent manager who also made technical contributions; an innovator with a particular genius for promotion, networking, and connecting different ideas; and an elitist who loved style and status for both himself and for the people and town of Birmingham.? One of the major implications of Boulton’s career is the interconnection between managerial and technical competence; two essential skills in short supply at the time. Boulton’s ability to serve both technical and strategic roles supports historian Thomas Hughes’ “technological systems” framework, which posits the importance of inventor-entrepreneurs and manager-entrepreneurs at different stages in the evolution of a large technological operation.? This book also affirms the importance of intellectual property issues at the end of the eighteenth century through narratives of the benefits derived from patent protection; the partners? endless fear of clever employees who might “steal” credit for their own contributions; and their ongoing (and ultimately unsuccessful) battle against industrial espionage.? Readers will also observe a balance between ideals and pragmatism: Enlightenment principles unquestionably shaped Boulton?s activities, but his desire to increase his society?s “civility” was always tempered by more pressing business and profit concerns.?

Although this book would benefit from a clear identification of coherent themes and larger implications that might connect the chapters, Matthew Boulton achieves its primary intention by commemorating Boulton’s nuanced high-impact career in a multidisciplinary manner without succumbing to hagiography.? Boulton’s personal values, labor and managerial practices, approach towards innovations, social networking, and manufacturing output are addressed with thoroughness and insight.? This book will prove useful for readers with general familiarity or interest in Boulton who wish to advance their understanding, and will also provide historians of technology, enlightenment scholars, and business and labor historians with a range of case studies that showcase the analytical techniques of different fields.

Robert Martello (robert.martello@olin.edu) is a Professor of the History of Science and Technology at Olin College of Engineering.? He published Midnight Ride, Industrial Dawn: Paul Revere and the Rise of American Enterprise in 2010.

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Subject(s):Business History
History of Technology, including Technological Change
Industry: Manufacturing and Construction
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century