He attended the public schools and worked as an iron molder.
Nolan was elected as a Republican to the 63rd United States Congress as San Francisco"s first labor congressman, a staunch progressive reelected to the four succeeding Congresses. He served from March 4, 1913 until his death. During the 66th United States Congress, he was the chairman of the United States House Committee on Patents, and during the 67th United States Congress, he was the chairman of the United States House Committee on Labor.
He had been re-elected in 1922 to the 68th United States Congress before he died in San Francisco, California on November 18, 1922.
He was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California.
He was a member of the board of supervisors of the city and county of San Francisco in 1911. In 1912, he was the secretary of the San Francisco Labor Council (he was a member of the Iron Molder"s Union).