Inside the Collection

Matthew Boulton and the Imperial Bank Mint in St Petersburg

 Architectural cross section drawing of Imperial Bank Mint in St Petersburg
Collection; Powerhouse Museum

At first glance, this drawing shows an old building holding a steam engine and other machinery. Then the eye focuses on the figures, men in formal eighteenth century Russian dress;
 Figures shown in detail from a drawing of the Imperial Bank Mint in St Petersburg
perhaps they are there to provide scale, or to suggest that this is an important building holding important machinery. The drawing is one proposal for the St Petersburg Mint. When a steam-powered mint was eventually built in that city, the engine and coining machinery were supplied by Matthew Boulton, an extraordinary entrepreneur who lived from 1728 to 1809.

The drawing shows a cross-section, but it is a lively illustration rather than a cold technical drawing. Look at the boiler to the left:
Boiler shown in detail from a drawing of Imperial Bank Mint in St Petersburg
shaped like a haystack, it has red hot coals below, red flames licking up its sides, and water bubbling away inside to produce steam for the engine.

The engine looks like our Boulton and Watt as it was in the 1790s when the drawing was executed. The overhead beam that transfers motion from the piston (shown inside the vertical cylinder on the left) and eventually to the drive wheel (the toothed wheel at centre right) is timber; our engine’s original timber beam was later replaced by one made of cast iron.
closeup of steam engine from an architectural drawing of the Imperial Bank Mint in St Petersburg
The condenser and air pump (which together evacuate the cylinder on each stroke, so that fresh steam can enter and move the piston) are shown in the square cooling tank; this arrangement was Watt’s most significant invention.

In front of the engine, and driven by it, are a mill for rolling metal (on the left) and another machine with crank and flywheel. We see glimpses of other machines behind the engine.

Boulton designed and made coining machines. He supplied skilled workers to erect the machinery, get it running, design coins and medals, engrave the dies, and train local workers. It was while addressing a problem on the St Petersburg project that he became the first person to write down the principles of the production line, over a century before Ransom Olds and Henry Ford applied these ideas to car manufacture. He is certainly a person worth commemorating this year, the 200th anniversary of his death, and to contemplate how much, and how little, has changed over those two centuries.

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