Birdsill Holly, a hydraulic engineer and inventor, was born
August 8, 1822, in Auburn, NY. He was raised in Auburn and Seneca
Holly followed in his father’s footsteps as a general
mechanic and millwright, becoming an apprentice in Seneca Falls. He
later became a superintendent and proprietor of a large shop in
Uniontown, Pennsylvania. After several years, he returned to Seneca
Falls to organize the firm of Silsby, Race & Holly for the
manufacture of hydraulic machinery. While there in 1855, he
invented the Silsby steam fire engine and its unorthodox rotary
engine and pump.
The Holly Manufacturing Company was founded in 1859 in Lockport,
N.Y., for the production of sewing machines, cistern pumps, and
rotary pumps. Shop facilities doubled when Holly produced machinery
for the Lockport water works system, designed by Holly to pump
water under pressure directly into city mains without a reservoir.
The system was applied by Holly in over 2,000 cities in the U. S.
By 1876, while business prospered, Holly’s interests shifted
to the problems of heating buildings by steam. An experimental
steam heating system tested in his home convinced Holly and others
of the viability of wide-scale central steam heating, resulting in
the 1877 founding of the Holly Steam Combination Company in
Heating systems using wood insulated pipe were installed in city
businesses and eventually supplemented with a series of
improvements covered by more than 150 patents issued to Holly
between 1876 and 1888. Central steam heating systems of the Holly
design spread to cities throughout the nation, resulting in the
1880 reorganization of the firm into the American District Steam
Company, within which Holly worked as principal and consulting
engineer until his death, April 27, 1894, in Lockport.
In 1877 Birdsill Holly dug a trench and ran a steam line 100
feet from his house to an adjoining property in Lockport to test
his central heating system. He soon formed the Holly Steam
Combination Company to generate steam from a boiler and distribute
it to businesses and homes in Lockport.
To avoid the basic inefficiencies of heating buildings with
individual small boilers, Holly’s system used a large central
boiler plant that furnished steam under moderate pressure to a
group of buildings in a surrounding district through a loop of
supply and return mains, which were heavily insulated to reduce
heat loss. Each customer was charged for the steam consumed,
determined by metering the water of condensation.
Various steam regulating and measuring devices were developed to
control and monitor the flow of steam in the system and to
individual delivery points. All of these were designed and produced
by Birdsill Holly and his companies.
‘The concept was highly successful,’ Dr. Gratch noted as
he presented the plaque. ‘Before the end of the century, a
number of district heating companies had formed, principally in
‘Holly’s centralized steam heating system was innovative
and practical,’ Dr. Gratch added. ‘ASME has already
recognized one of the earliest district heating systems still
operable the Detroit Edison District Heating System which was
designated a national landmark in 1985.’ The difference between
Detroit and Lockport is that Detroit is still in use.
The Holly System of Fire Protection and Water Supply is the
first National Mechanical Engineering Heritage Site. The Holly
System of District Heating is the second National Mechanical
Engineering Heritage Site. Site designations note an event or
development of clear historical importance to mechanical engineers.
Each designation reflects its influence on society, in its
immediate locale, nationwide, or throughout the world.
Hot Time For Lockport’s Central Systems For Fire, Steam And
In an era when bucket brigades were still viable options for
fire fighting, Birdsill Holly devised a system to deliver water
upon demand plenty of it with enough force to drive it hundreds of
feet into the quick of a fire. The same pipelines soon provided the
municipal water supply. And from this site, Holly later invented
district steam heating.
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) RECOGNISED
the achievements of Birdsill Holly in ceremonies last May 15 where
Holly settled and introduced his first systems Lockport, N.Y.
Dr. Serge Gratch, Past President of ASME, presented bronze
plaques to Mayor Ray Betsch for two National Mechanical Engineering
Her5itage site designations: the Holly System of Fire protection
and Water Supply, installed in 1863, and the Holly System of
District Heating, introduced in 1877.
These designations are the first to be made by ASME under the
new category of Mechanical Engineering Heritage Site. ASME History
and Heritage programs, which have recognized 120 Historic
Mechanical Engineering Landmarks since 1971, have been expanded to
include heritage sites and collections of significance to
According to early records of the Holly Manufacturing Company,
Bird-sill Holly believed his system dispensed with the need for
reservoirs (the gravity system) and fire engines. He explained the
advantage of his system: ‘Water is not merely distributed to
hydrants, but sent there under pressure, so that all that is
required is to couple on the hose and turn on the stream.’
Municipal systems and fire plugs were not new in Europe and New
England states. While fighting patent infringements, Holly
acknowledged that a water supply had been furnished by means of
forcing pumps and that stationary pumps had been employed to
extinguish fires. His invention was the development of a single
apparatus to effectively attain both these ends.
This was accomplished by pumping the water directly into the
mains of the water works, enabling the operator to control and
adjust the degree of pressure. Water could then be supplied to a
whole city for household use, or, by simply increasing the
pressure, instantaneously become an effective fire protection
system through the city’s hydrants.