Today, an odd story about steam engines and silver
plate. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here's a stunning painting,
made in 1814 by George Clint. It shows the grandeur
of a huge English banquet hall. Hundreds of lords
and ladies sit with the prince regent and the
emperor of Russia. Settings of Sheffield silver
march up and down the tables.
Sheffield silver plate came into being in 1742 when
a silversmith found that clean, smooth, blocks of
copper and silver would bond when he pressed them
together. He sandwiched copper between two silver
slabs -- then ran them through rollers, over and
over. The result was silver outside a strong copper
In 1762, 24-year-old Matthew Boulton set up a
factory in Birmingham, England. He began making
silver-plated objects with the Sheffield process.
Boulton became the first really large producer of
Sheffield plate. And, when silversmiths raised
legal objections to stamping hallmarks on the
stuff, Boulton led a movement to require separate
standards for Sheffield silver.
But Sheffield plate couldn't last. In 1800, a
chemist found that an electric current would
transfer silver to metal in a bath. By 1840,
electroplating had been patented, and it could be
used it to lay down any desired thickness of
silver. It took none of the craftsmanship needed in
the Sheffield process.
After that, Sheffield plate became a collectors'
cult item in the late 19th century. Forgers would
try to make electroplated copper ware look like
Sheffield silver. Experts would try to tell the
difference. They couldn't always do so.
The Sheffield copper/silver sandwich had edges that
had to be hidden, usually with strips of soldered
decoration. The imitators used decoration to hide
copper that wasn't really exposed. Sheffield also
had a slightly different hue. Still, after 1850,
all new silverware was either solid or
But there's more to Matthew Boulton's story. In
1768, when his silver works was only six years old,
he met young James Watt. Watt was in trouble. His
new steam engine wasn't running, and his patron was
going bankrupt. Boulton knew talent when he saw it,
and he bailed Watt out in exchange for rights to
produce the engine. In 1776, Watt moved to
Birmingham. The two of them went full-time into the
steam engine business, and the world has not been
the same since.
And my eyes wander back to that picture. It shows
the old order of empire -- an order that would
begin unraveling in the wake of political and
industrial revolution. They feast off Sheffield
plate, but they face extinction at the hands of the
new steam engines. Matthew Boulton died five years
before this picture was painted. But, his ghost is
here -- looming large.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds