Birdsill Holly was born November 8, 1820 in Auburn, New York and grew up around Senaca Falls. In his lifetime he made great contributions to the fields of mechanical and hydraulic engineering. He holds 150 american patents. Some of his inventions you use everyday! Despite his genius and his great accomplishments he never attained the fame and/or fortune of his contemperaries which includes Thomas Edison who was a good friend of Holly's and visited Lockport. In the following paragraphs we will explore a brief history of his trials and tribulations as a 19th century inventor.
Birdsill Holly was born November 8, 1820 to Birdsill and Comfort Holly. At the time of Holly's birth Auburn was a typical frontier town composed of rough wooden buildings. Four years earlier, in 1816, New York state approved a plan to construct a prison in Auburn. This is what originally brought the Holly's to central New York. Birdsill Sr. was a millwright and general mechanic who came to Auburn to help build the prison. After completion of the prison project Birdsill Sr. found new employment on the Auburn Seminary construction project. The Seminary was completed in early 1821. After the Seminary project Holly had trouble finding work. He moved his family to Scipio, New York and farmed for less than a year before moving to Senaca Falls, New York. At the time Senaca Falls was a large industrial center with numerous mills powered by the mighty Senaca River. It is believed that Birdsill Sr. worked as a mechanic in these mills. This is also where Birdsill Holly Jr. was first introduced to water power.
Birdsill Holly Sr. died September 3, 1828 at the age of 37. This forced Birdsill Jr. to drop out of school and support his family with only a 3rd grade education. At age ten he became an apprentice in a cabinet making shop and later in a machine shop. There is very little information on Birdsill Holly between 1836 and 1845, it is believed that during this time period he owned a machine shop in or around Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
Birdsill returned to Senaca Falls in 1845 and became a partner in the Silsby Company, also called "The Island Works." While working for this company he obtained his first patent, which was for a water pump. Senaca Falls would later become world famous for it's pumps. Holly's pumps attracted some very affluent peaple who convinced him to move to Lockport and run his own factory.
In 1859 Holly relocated to Lockport. Soon afterward he divorced his wife Elizabeth and married his ward Sophia who was 28 years younger than him. Divorce at that time was considered a serious offense, which, in part, caused him to become a social outcast.
It was two wealthy business men, Washinton Hunt and Thomas Flagler who convinced Holly to move to Lockport. These two men also financed his new company, Holly Manufacturing. Before Holly Mfg. began operations the Hydraulic Race Co. was formed. This company purchased rights to draw water from the canal, they also constructed a five story building on the east side of Market Street along the banks of the canal. The Hydraulic Race Co. rented out space in this building. One of thier first tenants was the Holly Manufacturing Co. who initally hired approxamatly 50 workers. At first they did not produce any saleable items. The workers were engaged in making there own tools and machinary. When they were ready to start production they claimed to have some of the finest machinary in the United States. In it's prime the company employed over 500 people. The first thing to be produced by Holly Mfg. was the Holly system of fire protection.
It was the Holly fire protection system that made Birdsill world famous. This system was mainly comprised of three of his inventions, a steam engine, an elliptical rotary water pump, and the fire hydrant. Lockport, NY was the first city to employ this system. The Holly Fire Protection System was soon adopted by thousands of cities throughout the United States and Europe. There were some cities however which did not purchase this system. One of those cities was Chicago. Not long after they rejected the offer to buy this system the great Chicago fire took place. It is surmised that this fire would have been relatively minor had they employed the Holly System. They purchased his system almost immediatly after the fire.
In the 1850's the Holly Manufacturing Co. was powered by an aboveground raceway on the south side of the canal. In 1864 they decided they needed more power, they began construction on a ten and a half foot underground raceway in August of that year. This raceway drew water from the canal above the locks, the water then traveled through the tunnel and exited back into the canal below the locks. As the water exited the tunnel it flowed through another one of Holly's inventions, the water wheel/turbine. This turbine produced about 2,994 horsepower. It is important to note that electricity did not exist at this time, the turbine produced mechanical power and was connected through a series of belts and pully's to the machinary inside the factory. The original tunnel was approxamately 750 feet in length. This tunnel, which still exists today, was later extended to provide power to two other factories. Holly also rigged a cable and pully system across the canal to provide power for factories on the south side. It was around this time, 1870, that Thomas Edison visited Holly in Lockport. Edison later invited Holly to come work with him in Menlo Park. Fortunatly for Lockport Birdsill turned down this offer. It was also in this time period that Holly sold off the rights to his Fire Protection System. It was his biggest money maker but not his main interest.
One of Holly's biggest dreams was the construction of a 700 foot skyscraper. He foresaw the Niagara Falls area becoming a major tourist attraction and planned to construct his 19 story skyscraper on Goat Island. In 1876 he finalized his plans for his skyscraper, unfortunatly he had trouble finding investers for what most thought was an outlandish idea. Another problem he encountered was the Porter family. The Porter family owned Goat Island and were vehemently against commercialization, they had already rejected offers from P.T. Barnum to develop the island. Peter Porter believed the island should remain as natural as possible, except for a few dirt roads and picnic tables. Being defeated on his home turf Holly took his plans to New York City. NYC was growing rapidly and running out of space to put all of its inhabitants. Holly suggested that it would be much more economical to build up, instead of out. Holly was called "the farmer from the west" and was ridiculed all the way back to Lockport. In his life time Birdsill would see skyscrapers spring up all over New York, but they were not of his design. This was perhaps his greatest defeat.
After suffering a great defeat Birdsill Holly began work on his greatest triumph, district steam heat. After drawing up plans for his steam heating system he once again had trouble finding investors. Holly however felt so strongly about this idea he used his own resources to finance the project. Holly chose his own residence at 31 Chestnut St. to demonstrate his latest invention. He first constructed a small boiler in the basement of his house, this is what produced the heat and is similar to modern steam and forced water furnaces. To prove he could transmit heat over long distances he looped 700 feet of pipe around his backyard. The day he first demonstrated steam heat is unknown, we do know that on that day a small crowd of people gathered around his house(they were hoping it would explode). When the valve was opened the steam flowed, his invention worked flawlessly. His house was heated in a matter of minutes.
He no longer had trouble finding investors for the project. In 1877 the Holly Steam Combination Company was formed. For the first season of operation, mains were laid on Locust, Genesee, and Walnut street. All were major thoroughfares in the city. When the valves were turned 30 psi of steam surged through the pipes and every house and building connected to the system was heated. Once again his system performed flawlessly and he proved his critics wrong. Eventually some problems did surface however. The water used to make the steam was drawn from the canal near where the city sewers emptied. Small fish and other foreign matter quickly clogged the intakes, this problem was remedied by placing a steel grate across the intake tubes. A man was hired to clear the debris away from the grate every so often. This problem was not solved however before there were a few shutdowns in the middle of a harsh winter. Luckily most customers had not yet disposed of their trusty wood stoves. In the second year of operation the service was extended to include Washburn street. Other munincipalities such as New York City, Long Island, and Auburn also invested in steam heating that year. In 1880 his system really took off, steam heat was now being installed in cities across America. Holly also came up with a few inventions to make district steam heat more profitible. Holly suspected his customers were wasting steam because the cost was the same no matter how much they used. In 1881 he recieved a patent for a steam meter. Now customers paid for steam by volume instead of having unlimited usage. After the meters were installed steam use was cut in half. To keep up with the growing demand for steam heating systems the Holly Steam Combination Company was reorganized in January of 1881. It would now be known as The American District Steam Heat Co. By 1882 Holly had been issued 50 patents related to steam heat. These would be some of his last inventions.
Birdsill Holly passed away April 27, 1894 at 7pm. He had suffered from a long illness and the cause of death was listed as heart failure. Something very ironic occured the night of his death. At 1:30 am, six and a half hours after his death, almost the entire city of Gasport burned. Gasport was one of a few cities that had never purchased his fire protecion system.