BIRDSILL HOLLY: A Biography

Holly's District Steam Heating System


| November/December 1988



Steam Trap

Holly's Patent Steam Trap.

Birdsill Holly, a hydraulic engineer and inventor, was born August 8, 1822, in Auburn, NY. He was raised in Auburn and Seneca Falls, NY.

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. and Canada.

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 Lockport.

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.