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 change a light bulb is familiar with at least a little part of it's history.
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.
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 tokensof 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 it’s 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, couldn’t have been too practical for pocket change. Just a few pennies worth would ensure a quick wearing out of one’s pocket lining (or at least the owner’s 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 I’ve 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 don’t 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 you’re 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 don’t 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.