Boulton & Watt – industrialisation role play

Matthew Boulton portrait (National Portrait Gallery)

As I have explained in a previous post I am a Lunar Society fanatic. I am currently designing a new scheme of work looking at the main individuals and how they helped to create the modern world.

Two of the most important of the Lunar Men were Matthew Boulton and James Watt who single-handedly kick started the Industrial Revolution by first creating the assembly line factory system (Boulton began this at the Soho Manufactory) and then mechanising the process using Watt’s steam engine (the first that could power a wheel).

The change from the small workshop production of the early 18th century to the large factory system of the late 18th century was genuinely revolutionary and I wanted to get the students to properly realise this. I had a hunch that a role play would be the best way to do this but I struggled over how to structure it. I wanted the students to make something small and pretty to mirror the Birmingham toys that Boulton & Watt were making. I also wanted them to make something that we could then put in an assembly line to increase production and finally ‘mechanise’ to explain the importance of Watt’s inclusion. I posed this on Twitter and the best idea was to get the kids to blow up balloons first and then to do it with an air pump (@rosieeatsjam suggested this). I liked it but I couldn’t easily do the assembly line bit and it wasn’t small enough or pretty enough. Later I asked my girlfriend if she could come up with something better and she did – origami swans.

So if you fancy teaching about Boulton & Watt’s industrialisation here’s what you need to do:


Lesson Title: Do Boulton and Watt deserve to be on a £50 note?


Starter: What are the key features of the modern industrial process?

Begin with a photo of a modern assembly line. In pairs get them to discuss the key features of the modern industrial process. If you pick the right photo they should suggest assembly line and mechanisation as the two most important points.


Teacher Introduction:

Explain that this modern industrial production begins with two men from the Lunar Society – Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Both feature on the £50 note and today the students will be making a judgement about whether they deserve this.


Task 1: Video

To give the kids the narrative behind Boulton and Watt show the students the 10 minute video from History West Midlands that covers the important points.


Task 2: Role Play

To fully understand the changes the students are now going to role play the changes to production in the 18th century. To do this the students need to be in groups of four. Each needs scissors and you need a guillotine.


Here’s some origami swans I created earlier. Be impressed.

You need to work through three stages. In each stage the students need to make origami swans. These sort of mirror the small, pretty toys the Birmingham industries were making.


Stage 1: Cottage Industry

During this stage the students should be given the a template page with large squares drawn on and the instructions for the swan (it says pelican but it’s a blooming swan). Individually they need to cut out squares and make the swans. Only give them 5 minutes and then spend a long time unpacking what has happened. Ask them why this method is good, what its problems are, how you could make it more profitable.


Stage 2: Soho Manufactory

Explain that Matthew Boulton created the first factory at Soho in Birmingham. He put lots of people together under one roof and pioneered an assembly line where everyone had one task only. If you have groups of four and you have a class of 28 like me you should have 7 tables of four kids. Give each table a different task or part of the swan making that they will specialise in – cutting, step 1 etc. Make sure that each part of the process is roughly in a line so they can pass the swans on after each step. Give them a further five minutes and see how many swans and quality of swans they can make. Once again spend a long time unpacking what has happened. Ask them to work out why this method is so much better and what could improve it further.


Stage 3: Soho Manufactory plus Watt’s steam engine

Explain that what really made the fortune of Boulton was his partnership with James Watt. Steam engines had existed prior to Watt (the Newcomen) but they could only pump water. Watt worked out how a steam engine could power a wheel – mechanisation was born. Give Table 1 (the cutting table) a guillotine and explain that this represents the steam engine. Give them a further five minutes and see how many swans and quality of swans you can make. Once again spend a long time unpacking what has happened. Ask them to work out why this method is so much better and importantly consider who benefitted most from this revolution.


Plenary: Return to the enquiry

Return to the lesson enquiry about the £50 note and ask the students to write a personal response.