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Soho Mint - A World First!

What’s that in your pocket or your pocketbook? Take it out, let’s have a look. It’s a coin of some sort; says it’s worth two pence. It’s made of copper. It’s perfectly round, isn’t it? Look at the edge: it’s plain, straight up-and-down, no frills. And the coin’s flat: you could stack a dozen just like it and the pile would never fall over.

 

It’s an ordinary coin, and anywhere you go, you’ll see objects just like it in the ways that really matter. They may not bear a portrait of the Queen, and they may not all be made of copper. But I’ll wager that they’ll all be flat, and perfectly round, and all have the same kind of edges.

 

And that’s because one man was directly or indirectly responsible for the lot. That man was Matthew Boulton, of Soho, near Birmingham…

 

I believe that anybody dealing with this man must keep two things very clearly in mind, if he or she is to engage the public in a consideration of, and a dialogue about, his contributions to Numismatics. The first is the total newness and immensity of what Matthew Boulton accomplished. The second is the interrelatedness and synchronicity of the whole affair, from beginning to end.

 

Both take some explaining. We cannot imagine the precise total impact that Matthew Boulton’s new coins would have had at the time they were introduced. We tend to assume that metallic money has always looked the way it does now. But it hasn’t. Coins have been with us for roughly twenty-five hundred years. During ninety percent of that time, they were very different in appearance from their appearance today. They weren’t all perfectly round. Members of any given group varied widely in design, so that they were easy to counterfeit. They were struck in high relief. Their edges might be ornamented or they might be plain; but they were most certainly not straight up-and-down – and if you tried to stack a dozen of these coins, good luck.

 

We do have some written testimony of the impact made by Boulton’s new coins, which began trickling from a new manufactory that he called the Soho Mint around 1790. Those people who took the trouble to write to the press and to monthly publications such as the Gentleman’s Magazine realized that something new had made its appearance. They extolled the artistry of the new coins, the celerity of their production. But they failed to realize that what they saw and what they praised were the unavoidable results of a decision made years earlier. Appalled by his town’s justly-earned reputation of Forgery Capital of the World, Matthew Boulton decided to try his hand at making a ‘safe’, unforgeable coin. After all, the basic processes involved in making money were not all that different from those connected with making buttons – and Boulton had a quarter-century’s worth of button-making under his belt. But he added a twist to the equation, and that twist would make all the difference. He’d inject one of his partner James Watt’s steam engines into the process. He would do so in order to increase production: at least in theory, a tireless steam-powered press would inevitably turn out more money than the fallible, exhaustible force of the unaided human arm. But Boulton would also turn to steam out of a belief that its motive force would yield a product that could not be copied outside of his establishment – and that steam-powered coining, coming from Birmingham, could rehabilitate that city’s reputation while burnishing that of her native son.

Who was Matthew Boulton? And Why Should We Care?

WHO WAS MATTHEW BOULTON?

And Why Should We Care?

 

by Dr Richard G Doty

Boulton’s equation of steam-power with unforgeability appears to have been instinctive. My work in his papers convinces me that he saw the relationship as such by the early 1780s if not before, and he remained faithful to the concept for the remainder of his days. But I cannot say whether he was fully aware of the consequences of his choice prior to the beginning of his moneying career. He would have learned them quickly enough, and he would later claim them as deliberate results of his new minting combination, even if he actually arrived at them through trial and error. In any case, those consequences are all that matter, because they created the coin as we now know it.

 

He had a new, massive motive force. He wanted to use that force to strike large numbers of new, unforgeable coins. If the whole thing were to come off, he would have to

1) create shallow images in his dies. The deeper images engraved in traditional coinage dies would slow down the process;

2) create shallow dies to extend their life. This came back to the tremendous increase in motive force associated with the power of steam;

3) create a third die to embrace the other two. This also went back to the greater power of steam: if he didn’t create a third, ring-shaped piece of metal – a collar – to surround the metal blank as it was being struck, mayhem would ensure;

4) change the edges of his coins. The collar surrounding his coins would almost certainly have to be one-piece, because anything else would slow down the minting process. But that would put severe limitations on the nature of the third side of the coin. The edge could be plain, or vertically reeded, or it could have ornaments or lettering sunk into the metal. Anything else (and typical eighteenth-century coins had all sorts of fancy, raised-edge possibilities, made possible by the leisurely rate at which they were struck) was strictly off-limits.

 

In other words, Boulton’s new money would feature shallow relief (which would, incidentally, facilitate the mass-production of identical coin dies). It would all have the same diameter. It would feature straight, vertical edges. It would be the modern coin.

 

And at no time was there a greater need for it than at the time of its appearance, the final decade of the eighteenth century.

Here is where the interrelatedness and synchronicity come in. The backdrop for all of Boulton’s monetary experimentation was the opening phase of the British Industrial Revolution. That movement depended upon the creation of factories – workshops harnessing human labor in repetitive ways, often set up in underpopulated regions of the country. To attract and retain workers, wages would have to be paid. They would have to be paid in the form of cash: no one knew anyone else in the new towns where the factories were. The payments would have to feature the lower members of the monetary system – halfpennies and farthings and small silver – because wages were low. The normal coiner, the Royal Mint, wasn’t interested in making that type of commodity – it was expected to produce a certain amount of money, not a certain number of coins; so it stuck to gold, which only benefited a minority. By the middle years of the eighteenth century, there was a shortage of copper money, and that was thirty years prior to the stirrings of industrialization. Things could only get worse, and they did: back-alley forgers created fake coppers by the ton, to the extent that a man writing at the beginning of the 1790s was able to lament that ‘not the fiftieth part of our copper money is legitimate’. The country needed new, safe money, and massive amounts of it, were the fakes to be driven out of commerce, were the new industrialization to fully succeed.

 

The Industrial Revolution created a crisis in coinage. Then it thoughtfully brought to the fore people and processes able to solve the crisis that it had created. It brought Benjamin Huntsman to prominence: his ‘crucible steel’ was the very thing to create new and better coins dies, and from them, new and better coins. There was James Rennie, who had the gift of rolling metal cleaner and truer than ever before. There was James Watt, who set the whole thing dancing to the tune of steam. And there was Matthew Boulton, who took the steel, and the rolling, and the fire-engine, and created a new coin with it all…

 

When he and his heirs were done, they would have sent money, and mints, from Birmingham to Bombay. And the new form of the coin would have become so fixed that people ceased to see it at all, because it had ‘always’ looked that way. I’m not certain whether Mr. Boulton would agree, but it strikes me as singular accomplishment.

 

But it also poses problems for us. The sheer ubiquity of the mass-produced, Boultonian object, coupled with the shortness of human memory or the understandable human preoccupation with more central matters than the appearance of our money, means that these objects are, in a very real way, too large to be seen by the public, unless we skillfully and patiently bring them to the public’s attention. We must somehow share our enthusiasm with others, convincing them that this really was and is something new, the absolute ending of one era and the absolute beginning of another. In my experience, the simplest way of doing so might be to spend a few pounds to acquire two coins, a Tower Mint halfpenny of 1770-1775 and a Soho Mint halfpenny of 1799. Those two pieces will say it all, and they will tell the story regardless of their state of preservation. That is because, when Boulton set out to reform the copper coinage, he went all the way. He knew his products would one day become battered and worn. So he set out to ensure that, no matter how much circulation they saw, they would still be his coins, easily recognized as such. And if the people of 1807 could be made to see the difference and the novelty of the thing, their descendants in 2007 can be similarly taught.

 

And there is another point I’d like to get across, one even more important than the identity of a ‘new’ coin. That is, in the course of his career creating coinage, Matthew Boulton was forced to devise a new way of creating anything. The new way was the progressive manufacturing process, and here again, we are so used to the idea that we entirely take it for granted: raw materials in at one end of the plant, finished products out the other. How else would you make something? But the progressive manufacturing concept was not inevitable: someone had to think it through. We do well to ponder exactly how and why and where and when the concept came into being; and when we do so, we find Mr. Boulton at the center of it. VERY briefly, the major steps were these:

1) Boulton’s original coining presses stood in a circle, powered by an overhead wheel.

2) Those for whom he was building a mint at St. Petersburg wanted a different arrangement, for purposes of security. Boulton was in a quandary. He couldn’t come up with a way of giving the Russians what they wanted.

3) But one of his employees could. John Southern came up with a vacuum pump to replace the overhead wheel arrangement, so that presses could now be put in any configuration desired, including a straight line.

4) And the new freedom got Matthew Boulton thinking: if you could put presses in a line, why not put the entire manufacturing process in a line, so that, in his words, it would ’go forward progressively from one room to another … & never go backward & forward.’

 

So it was done for St. Petersburg, and for Soho, and for Tower Hill. Now it is employed in every factory in the world, so that we have forgotten that it actually had an author, who he was, and why he came up with it. I think this is an essential story to tell, and I’d quite frankly like to ask you for advice on how to tell it.

Anglesey Pattern Halfpenny, DH380, Soho Mint, 12th October 1790

Obverse by Rambert Dumarest

The world’s first modern coin, struck in a collar on a steam-driven press