Who Invented The Fire Hydrant? The Story of Birdsill Holly

Who invented the fire hydrant?

If you said, "Birdsill Holly," go to the head of the class. On the other hand, you're not alone if you didn't know, and muttered something like, "Huh?" when you saw the name.

You might expect someone with a name like Birdsill (Birdsill Jr., to be precise) would be remembered for the name alone, if not for his prodigious contributions to the field of hydraulic engineering in the 19th Century. Then again, you might expect the recipient of 150 patents - topped only by Thomas Edison's 1,093 - would live on as a mythic piece of Americana next to George Washington's dentures, and Ben Franklin's lightning rod.

So much for clichés about inventing better mousetraps, fame and fortune and all of that. Still, Holly and Edison were friends. Edison even tried to entice Holly to come work for him at Menlo Park.

While Holly was only one of many involved in the development of the fire hydrant, innovations he introduced are largely responsible for the fire hydrant we take for granted today.

Early Years of Birdsill Holly Jr. - Inventor of the Fire Hydrant

Birdsill Holly Jr. was born on November 8, 1820 to Birdsill and Comfort Holly in Auburn, New York. Young Holly's penchant for mechanics came from his father, a millwright and mechanic.

Birdsill, Sr. moved his young family to the area to take part in construction of the new Auburn correctional prison facility. When that job ended he found work on the construction of the Auburn Theological Seminary. When that job ended, however, jobs became scarce, and he tried his hand at farming for a spell.

When young Holly was four the family moved to Seneca Falls, New York, a major center of water-powered industry at the time. It's believed his father worked as a mechanic in one of the town's many mills. When he died in 1828 at the age of 37, young Birdsill, with only a third-grade education, dropped out of school to support his family.

Holly became an apprentice in a cabinet-making shop, and after that a machine shop. Details of his life between 1836 and 1845 are unclear, but it's believed he owned a machine shop in or around Uniontown, PA.

The Early Beginnings of the Fire Hyrdant

In 1845, Holly became a partner in the Silsby Company, a manufacturer of hydraulic machines and steam-powered fire engines. While there in 1849 he received his first patent, for a rotary water pump. In 1855, he invented the Silsby steam fire engine.

By 1859 Holly's pump designs and ingenuity were attracting attention from influential and moneyed individuals. He relocated to Lockport, New York when Washington Hunt, a future governor, and Thomas Flagler offered to set him up in business. Holly Manufacturing was born. At its peak, the company employed over 500 workers.

At Holly Manufacturing, he designed machinery for the Lockport water works that allowed water to be pumped under pressure into city mains without a reservoir. Shortly thereafter, Holly came up with his first design for a fire hydrant, a device invented before he was born.

Feb 26, 2007
by Anonymous (not verified)

interesting read.  thanks

interesting read.  thanks

Feb 27, 2007
by Gloria Campos
Gloria Campos's picture


I like this new section:)