Who Invented The Fire Hydrant? The Story of Birdsill Holly

Holly's Fire Protection and Water System - an integrated system designed to deliver water under a steady pressure for public safety - brought him worldwide fame in 1863. The system was widely adapted throughout the United States and Canada, and established the standard upon which all current, water distribution systems as based.

In 1869, Holly was issued a patent, number 94749, for an "improved fire hydrant".

Ironically, Chicago declined to purchase the system. That was, however, before Mrs. O'Leary's cow. Shortly after being devastated by the Great Fire of 1871, the City of the Big Shoulders bought into the system that many believed would have kept the fire from raging out of control.

During this productive period of his professional life, Holly divorced his wife, Elizabeth, and married his ward, Sophia, a woman 28 years his junior. The faux pas may have been the seed from which sprouted Holly's historical obscurity. Respectable people in polite Victorian society simply did not get divorced in those days. And they didn't do so in favor of hooking up with trophy wives. Who knows what people would have said about Woody Allen.

Reaching for the Sky and Skyscrapers

In 1876, Holly's name should have become synonymous with the word, skyscraper. Should have.

Holly drew up plans for a 700-foot-tall structure to be used as an observation tower on Goat Island, located in the middle of the Niagara River between Niagara Falls' Bridal Veil and Horseshoe Falls. The notion of the Falls as a tourist Mecca was considered far fetched at the time. Peter Porter, the island's owner rejected the structure as he did all development proposals that would alter the island's natural state. In fact, he had already turned down advances from P.T. Barnum.

Undeterred, Holly took his skyscraper idea to New York City, which was quickly running out of available space to expand horizontally. Why not built up, instead?

It's a notion that makes perfect sense today, but Holly was ridiculed as a lunatic "farmer from the west," and laughed out of town. Less than a decade later William Jenney built the world's first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building in Chicago. Its 10 stories were about half the height of Holly's proposed structure.

Citizens in the big city were not about to be upstaged, and Holly could only sit and watch as Chicago and New York engaged in a fevered tug-o-war competition for possession of the world's tallest building based on a succession of designs by just about everyone but Holly.

A Fitting End to an Impressive Career

Many consider Holly's last major innovation, district heating, to be his greatest. Also less commonly known as teleheating, the origins of district heating can be tracked back to the heated baths of ancient Rome. Of the 150 patents issued to Holly, 50 of them were related to steam heating.

The concept involved the distribution of heat, produced at a central location, to distant locations (some of them many miles distant) by means of underground pipes. The system relied on considerable infrastructure (boiler plant, pumps, and mains) for support, but eliminated the need for large equipment expenditures in buildings connected to the system.

To prove the practicality of his system and attract investors, Holly arranged for a demonstration at his home. He constructed a boiler in his basement. Seven-hundred-feet of pipe were looped around his backyard to prove heat could be transmitted over long distances. The pipe terminated in the living quarters of Holly's home.

When the valves were opened, the system worked perfectly, heating the home in a matter of minutes.

A flood of investors soon followed, and the Holly Steam Combination Company was established in 1877. System usage was tracked by metering the amount of steam used by individual customers.

The system was established in a number of cities throughout the United States, a few of which are still in use. In 1985, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers designated the Detroit Edison District Heating System in Downtown Detroit a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

At about 7 p.m. on April 27, 1894 following a long illness, Birdsill Holly died at his home. About six-and-one-half hours later, a major portion of the nearby town of Gasport burned to the ground. Gasport didn't buy Holly's fire protection system.

Micheal Daisy
Guest Blogger


American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME)
City of Lockport, NY
Public Broadcasting System
Steam Traction magazine ["Birdsill Holly: A Biography", November 1988]
U.S. Patent Office
University of Rochester, NY

Photo Credits: LockportCave.com

Originally published on February 22, 2007 and updated in February 2008.

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:)