People of Steel: Alexander Lyman Holley

Infographic about Alexander Lyman Holley, who brought the Bessemer process to the United States. Photo. "Holley’s foremost interest lie in railroading technology. Steelwork interests were a natural extension of that interest." "A wealthy, charismatic man, Holly toured Europe studying railroads and brought improvement ideas back to American railroad." "Designed the steelworks, first at Troy, NY and then Harrisburg, PA. "Alexander Lyman Holley

(significant steel working years mid 1850s-early 1880s)

Brought the Bessemer process to the United States

Alexander Lyman Holley moves our series from the technological advances in steelmaking in Britain to the business of steel in the United States. Holley brought the Bessemer process to the U.S. in 1863 and eventually designed and built several steelworks in various locations in the Mid-Atlantic and upper Mid-West. Holley is also our first “People of Steel” with a direct connection to Andrew McCreath, our company’s founder.

Alexander Lyman Holley was born into a wealthy, political family and as a young boy was described as having “an overflow of mirth and high spirits” and as an adult was said to have “contagious enthusiasm (…) and commanding character”. His father was a governor and cutlery factory owner, a place where Alexander frequented and got a taste of metalworking. He was educated and began working in the railroad industry. He became friends with Zerah Colburn, a locomotive engineer and journalist, and the two wrote a weekly paper on the locomotive industry, American Engineer from 1854-1857. After a market downturn in 1857, Colburn and Holley suspended the paper and were commissioned by railroad company presidents to study European railroads and make recommendations on how to improve American railroads. He continued making annual trips to Europe for the rest of his life.

While on one of his European trips, Holley took an interest in ironclad ships and the Bessemer process for making steel. In 1863, he purchased the U.S. right to the Bessemer process. Eventually, he became known as the foremost steel and plant engineer and designer of his time, first establishing a works in Troy, NY in 1865 and then one in Harrisburg, PA* in 1867.

*The Harrisburg work drew a Scottish metallurgist, Andrew McCreath, to the United States in 1870.

Holley wrote prolifically for various publications about technologies, particularly railroad technologies, throughout his life, including over 300 articles for the New York Times. He correctly predicted that steamships would one day be propelled by a screw, rather than the sidewheel method used at the time.  He was a founder of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and an officer of the American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers. The year he died, he was awarded the Bessemer Gold Medal from the Iron and Steel Institute in London.

In all, Alexander Lyman Holley held 10 patents improving on the Bessemer process and five others for furnace and railroad inventions. There is a popular monument to him in New York City’s Washington Square Park.