History of the District Energy Industry

Quick History of District Heating

District heating traces its roots as far back as the popular hot water-heated baths and greenhouses of ancient Rome. District systems gained prominence in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, with one system in France in continuous operation since the 14th century. Across the Atlantic, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis began steam district heating service in 1853.

Although these and numerous other systems have operated over the centuries, the first commercially successful district heating system was launched in Lockport, N.Y., in 1877 by American hydraulic engineer Birdsill Holly, considered the founder of district heating.

In his day, Holly was widely known as an inventor and entrepreneur. He held 150 patents during his lifetime, second in number only to his friend Thomas Edison. Most of Holly's creations involved water, pumps and power. They included the fire hydrant and first municipal system of firefighting, the water-pressure gauge, the water tap, the expansion joint and, of course, commercial central steam heating.

With the 1877 installation of the Lockport district heating system, the Holly Steam Combination Co. was born. Over the next five years, the company implemented nearly 50 systems, including one that still serves downtown Denver today.

In 1882, the business was acquired by American District Steam Co., whose investors had earlier purchased the rights for the Holly system in New York. They went on to sell hundreds more district heating systems throughout the world over the next 80 years. (American District Steam was one of the first members of the National District Heating Association, represented at the 1909 convention by W.J. Kline and C.R. Bishop.)

Holly's memory is kept alive today not only through his many inventions, but also at a National Mechanical Engineering Heritage Site in Lockport. Near the Canal Museum in the Lockport Locks complex, there is a historical marker noting the location of the old Holly Manufacturing Co., which built products using his many inventions. Limited ruins of the firm, which once employed 500 people, remain along the north side of the canal. More details about Birdsill Holly.

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