Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Holley, Alexander Lyman

Alexander Lyman Holley (1832-1882), engineer and inventor, was born in Lakeville, Connecticut, on July 20, 1832. His early fondness for mechanics and his distaste for classical studies made him an ideal applicant to Brown in 1850, just when President Francis Wayland’s new curriculum was introduced, replacing some of the courses in ancient languages with electives including engineering. Before entering college he wrote “An Essay on Pen and Pocket Cutlery,” which appeared in the American Railroad Journal in 1850. His oration at the Brown Commencement of 1853 was entitled “The Natural Motors.” While still an undergraduate he invented a steam engine cutoff which he described in an article in Appleton’s Mechanics’ Magazine and Engineers’ Journal for July 1852. His first job at Corliss and Nightingale in Providence did not satisfy his desire to build locomotives, so he was soon traveling around the country looking for suitable employment. He found a place to learn his trade with the New Jersey Locomotive Works, and after hours he found time to contribute to the New York Railway Gazette. He entered into partnership with Zerah Colburn, editor of the Gazette, and in due time took over the paper and renamed it Holley’s Railroad Advocate. In 1857, at the age of twenty-six, he gave up his paper and went with Colburn to Europe to study European railroads with a view to improving American railways and published a report on this subject. He was engaged as a writer on engineering subjects by Henry J. Raymond, editor of the New York Times, and contributed about 300 articles to the paper between 1858 and 1875. In 1862 he was sent to Europe to learn about steel armored naval vessels. He published his findings in a valuable text book, Ordnance and Armament, in 1864. From that time on his consuming interest was the production of steel. He was able to make improvements in Henry Bessemer’s steel-making process developed several years earlier, and in 1865 was successfully producing steel in Troy, New York. After that steel plants were built throughout the country under his direction and the American steel industry was launched. Holley’s unceasing work has taken its toll. He died on January 20, 1882 in Brooklyn. Clinging to his dream, he spoke from his deathbed, “I should like to live 10 and 15 years longer to aid in realizing the possibilities of the open-hearth process ... but I am satisfied.” His monument in Washington Square Park in New York City is a bronze bust on a column inscribed “To Alexander Lyman Holley, foremost among those whose genius and energy established in America and improved throughout the world the manufacture of Bessemer steel, this memorial is erected by engineers of two hemispheres.”