Boulton & Watt: Luminaries
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by Greg Burns

Published in The GlenCoin News in February and March of 1996.

(Editorís Note: The following article is culled from the pages of The Canadian Numismatic Journal, Vol. 38, No. 2, Feb. í93. This will be the first of two installments.)

At a local coin club meeting recently someone brought one of those large, oversized facsimiles of the one-cent piece. You know, the phony ones that are the size of a silver dollar. Well, I know of a real one-penny piece that's the size of a silver dollar. What's more, anybody who's ever had to buy or change a light bulb is familiar with at least a little part of it's history.

img15.gif (3284 bytes)"What's a coin have in common with a light bulb?" you ask?

Within the answer to that question lies a tale that goes back a couple of hundred years.

You've probably been shopping for light bulbs before, or had to change one that had burned out. As you scanned the shelves looking for the proper replacement bulb, one of the things you looked for was a bulb of the right wattage. A watt is a unit of power (1/746th Horsepower to be exact), and for various types of light bulbs (incandescent, fluorescent, and so forth) it's a fairly good measure of how bright the bulb will be.

Well, back in 1797 a minting firm in Soho, England (a tract outside of Birmingham) by the name of Boulton & Watt struck two special type coins for Great Britain. A penny was struck that weighed one ounce, about the weight of a silver dollar, as well as a twopence that weighed two ounces.

"Gee, is there some connection between the watt of my light bulbs and the Watt of Boulton & Watt?" you inquire?

Amazing that you should ask. Yes, they have an intimate connection, and are, in fact, one and the same, for the watt as a unit of power was so named to honor the Scottish engineer, James Watt, one of the partnership's principals.

wpe2.jpg (9151 bytes)You may recall that James Watt is commonly credited with the invention of the steam engine. Though he didn't actually invent it (that was done by Thomas Newcomen and John Calley in 1705), his refinement by the addition of a separate condensing vessel in 1765 so improved it's fuel efficiency that the mistake is usually forgiven. It's generally accepted that the Newcomen engine used coal at two or three time the rate of Watt's first improved version. The improvements Watt made in the steam engine over the next three decades helped to fuel the industrial revolution, and in part, are responsible for our standard of living today.

An inventive genius, Watt also came up with the sun-and-planet gear wheel, the double-acting engine, the throttle valve, invented a special ink for copying letters, patented an improved combustion furnace, originated the term "horsepower", and discovered independently the chemical composition of water.

wpe3.jpg (12430 bytes)In 1775 Watt entered into a partnership with Matthew Boulton, an entrepreneurial silversmith. Boulton was an English engineer who inherited his father's silver-stamping business and became an industrial dynamo. He had business interests in mining (Boulton & Watt's interests in Cornish copper mines translated to some of the fodder for their coinage presses.), silver and other metalware manufacturing, and along with Watt entered into the steam engine manufacturing business. His initial interest in steam engine power was sparked by his fear of the local stream drying up; it supplied the water wheel power that ran his factory. Of course, as a sound business man, he first pushed through the British Parliament an action that extended Watt's patent on his steam engine designs for 25 years. Ever the pragmatic profiteer, Boulton wanted to charge his steam engine customers not by a simple one-time selling price, but rather by a scheme whereby the customer would pay forever according to the savings in fuel (as compared to the older style Newcomen engines). Watt therefore invented a lockable device that could be installed on the engines and would keep track of the fuel expending in running it.

Boulton first coupled steam engines to coining presses in 1786 (the further refined rotative type), and in 1790 obtained a patent for this marriage. Before steam, coinage presses utilized power from human muscle, water wheels, literal "horsepower", drop-weights, etc. There was also the long tradition of hand-hammered coining, though that had largely faded from use by that time.

Actually, minting began at the Soho "manufactory" long before the steam presses arrived. As early as 1763, the button department of the plant produced a perpetual calendar. As it developed into a self-sustaining portion of the business, the Soho Mint struck some of the British regal coins, many of the merchant and colonial tokens, coins for the East India Company, as well as foreign coins. Those who collect copper coinage of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries undoubtedly have already heard of the name Boulton & Watt. Collectors of Canadian colonials and bank tokens have heard of them as the minters of: the Rutherford tokens of 1846 (Newfoundland), the habitant coinage of 1837 (Lower Canada), the Bank of Montreal tokens of 1842 and 1844 (Province of Canada), the New Brunswick halfpennies and pennies of 1843, the Victoria Frigate tokens (also of New Brunswick), the Copper Company of Upper Canada token, and the Lesslie & Sons tokens (Upper Canada), among others.

Though eager to make a profit striking tokens for merchants and colonies, the Soho Mint was careful to keep itís legal pathways relatively free from controversies with the Crown. There were times the mint advised potential customers that their proposed coinage could not be undertaken because of questionable authority, and sometimes strove to convince Parliament or some other government body of the wisdom of allowing a particular undertaking, though this effort was often performed by manufacturing agents.

However extensive the output of the Soho Mint was, the best known achievement of the Boulton & Watt mint was the 1797 striking of the British penny and twopence. Beautifully designed, they use broad, massive rims to support the incuse legends of "Georgius III D.G. Rex" on the obverse and "Britannia 1797" on the reverse. This was the first copper British penny (up until then they had been silver), and the first British penny to show a seated Britannia, a popular design element used extensively even up to the most recent coinage.

These huge coins, though impressive, couldnít have been too practical for pocket change. Just a few pennies worth would ensure a quick wearing out of oneís pocket lining (or at least the ownerís stamina). The twopence, referred to as the "cartwheel", and measuring about 41 millimeters in diameter, has even been machined and pressed into service as an ashtray (or so Iíve heard). When it was fashionable to use paperweights, the twopence could count on doing duty in that arena also. 722,000 of the twopence were struck. I donít know the quantity of the pennies that were minted, and would appreciate hearing from anyone with this information.

For Matthew Boulton and James Watt the Soho mint was but one of many interests and pursuits. Today, Boulton is remembered primarily as a silversmith and industrialist, and Watt gets a nod of the head as the "inventor" of the steam engine. These two men formed an alliance that greatly accelerated the onrush of technology. Through their inventiveness society had found a source of power that was cheap, plentiful, and transportable.

So, the next time youíre in the store looking at row upon row of light bulbs, stop for a moment and recall the tale of James Watt and his buddy Matthew Boulton and be thankful you donít have to pay for your purchase with a pocketful of their 1797 coins.


Coins Through the Ages. Brown, 1961.

The Encyclopedia Americana. 1963 Ed.

Standard Catalog of World Coins. Krause and Mishler, 1973 and 1990.

The Charlton Standard Catalog of Canadian Colonial tokens. 2nd Ed.

The Beauty and Lore of Coins, Currency and Medals. Clain-Stefanelli, 1974.

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