The modern city was invented by a few intrepid people in the span of only a few decades, all in the same metropolitan area. The era was the 1880s, a period called the “Second Industrial Revolution.” The place was New York City. The cast of characters was small but eccentric, the most renowned of which was Thomas Edison. But while Edison was experimenting with electricity in his laboratory in the New Jersey suburbs of Menlo Park, another man was also inventing a way of transmitting power that would also change the way our cities worked and looked. His name was Birdsill Holly.
Holly only had a third-grade education, having dropped out to take care of his family after his father died unexpectedly. He worked his way up through the ranks at a machine shop to eventually be able to own one himself. It was in this shop, through hands-on fabricating, that he was able to invent a number of important technologies like the fire hydrant and the rotary water pump. He also figured out that he could transfer energy with very little loss, by filling pipes with steam. This became the foundational breakthrough for what is called district steam, in which a large boiler sends heat over long distances using a system of high-pressure pipes. This was the basis for many of the steam systems that are installed in cities today, the first and largest of which is in Manhattan.
New York City’s district steam system grew to include around 2,000 buildings and is still used today to do everything from heating the Empire State Building to sanitizing scrubs in New York Presbyterian hospitals to controlling the humidity in the city’s numerous art galleries. This system of over one hundred miles of pipe has helped shape the city of New York. Many of the tall buildings that make the city unique were only possible thanks to the shared infrastructure costs of this heating network. The buildings themselves would all likely have smokestacks on their roofs if not for district steam.