A Path to Steam
At the same time that Edison was developing his system of central station power, another centrally produced energy source — steam — also was under development.
Building on the work of Sir Hugh Plat and James Watt, Birdsill Holly of Lockport, New York, heated his house, and later, much of the town, with steam. In 1877, he formed the Holly Steam Combination Company (later reorganized as the American District Steam Heat Co.). By 1882, Holly, the “father of district steam heating,” had been issued 50 patents related to steam heat; he had developed a steam meter and his district steam system was being used in cities across America.
The steam heating industry was still in its infancy, and the challenges of introducing the system to a city as large as New York seemed almost insurmountable. Yet Wallace C. Andrews decided to take on that challenge. He acquired franchise and license rights to deploy the Holly system, and incorporated the Steam Heating and Power Company of New York in 1879. Andrews acquired a competing firm that was formed in 1880, the New York Steam Company, and the two companies consolidated in 1881 under the latter name.
With needed capital and other preparations now in place, Andrews and New York Steam’s first chief engineer, Charles E. Emery, divided New York City into ten heating districts, acquired land for central boiler plants, and began to lay the steam mains. Emery, a marine engineer during the Civil War, was considered one of the leading steam engineers of his day. For this unprecedented venture, his experience and ingenuity would be put to the test as he solved numerous technical challenges. Often he would consult with Thomas Edison when the two men happened to meet in the trenches, discussing the challenges of building their respective energy systems.
New York Steam’s first central steam boiler plant, located at Cortlandt, Dey, Greenwich, and Washington Streets, was completed in 1881 and included 48 boilers and a 225-foot chimney — at the time, it was one of the tallest features of the lower New York skyline, second only to the spire of Trinity Church. The district steam installation was so novel it was the cover story of the November 19, 1881 issue of Scientific American.
On March 3, 1882, the company supplied steam to its first customer, the United Bank Building at 88-92 Broadway, on the corner of Wall Street. By December 1882, New York Steam boasted 62 customers. By 1886, the firm had 350 customers and five miles of mains, and began an expansion uptown.