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£50 reward for industrial revolution pioneers on new bank note

Bank’s new note evokes memories of age of steam with engineering greats James Watt and Matthew Boulton seen

Sir Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, has often voiced his yearning for a “rebalancing” of the economy towards neglected manufacturing, and he will put the nation’s money where his mouth is next month when the Bank produces a new £50 note celebrating two pioneers of the industrial revolution.

The Bank will evoke the memory of the inventor James Watt and his Birmingham business partner, Matthew Boulton on the new note.

Threadneedle Street announced that the note, replacing one featuring the first governor of the Bank of England, Sir John Houblon, will go into circulation on 2 November. It will be the first to feature two people (in addition to the Queen) and the first to be signed by Chris Salmon, the Bank’s new chief cashier.

Ed Miliband, whose speech to the Labour party conference last week lauded “good” businesses and castigated “asset strippers”, would probably approve.

Boulton, born in 1728, was an entrepreneur who started work in his father’s Birmingham factory making buckles for shoes and knee-breeches, but he later built his own showpiece factory on Handsworth Heath.

He later went into partnership with James Watt, who took the Newcomen steam engine, then the latest design, and made a series of crucial improvements, improving its efficiency and making it more commercial.

By 1800, Watt’s version was outselling its predecessor, and they were shipping it across the world. Boulton and Watt worked together to pioneer the use of the steam engine in the cotton spinning industry; and Boulton also used Watt’s engine to power minting machines, pressing coins at his Soho Mint in Birmingham, to boost the supply provided by the Royal Mint.

The Bank governor chooses who will be featured on bank notes, and appears to be sending a strong message about where Britain’s strengths once lay.

Commercialising inventions, as Boulton and Watt managed to do, has long been seen as an achilles heel of the modern economy, with few boffins possessing the financial nous to build up a successful firm.

Successive governments have tried to tilt the playing field to encourage spin-out firms from universities, and boost in-house research by corporations.

Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, said, “We can learn a lot from the hugely successful combination of Boulton, an entrepreneurial businessman, with Watt, a brilliant engineer.

“Today’s challenges are every bit as great as those faced 200 years ago, and recognising our past engineering greats is an excellent way of inspiring the next generation to follow in Boulton and Watt’s footsteps.”

The Bank invites the public to submit suggestions for historical figures who could feature on banknotes. Some, including William Shakespeare and Sir Christopher Wren, have been taken up. But Sir Mervyn has so far rejected other suggestions, from Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, to more contemporary figures including Sir Jimmy Savile, Mick Jagger and Terry Wogan.

Just two women have so far been selected: Elizabeth Fry, the social reformer, and the pioneering nurse Florence Nightingale.

For many workers, though, the worthy example of these fathers of the industrial revolution will be out of reach – because many people rarely get to see a £50 note, let alone hold on to it for long enough to examine the picture on the back. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds