Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Black History Month: Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy: The "Real McCoy"

Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844. His parents were George and Emillia McCoy, former slaves from Kentucky who escaped through the Underground Railroad. 

At an early age, Elijah showed a mechanical interest, often taking items apart and putting them back together again. Recognizing his keen abilities, his parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.  After finishing his studies as a “master mechanic and engineer” he returned to the United States.

Elijah moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan but was unable to find work as an engineer due to racial barriers. Skilled professional positions were not available for African Americans at the time, regardless of their training or background. He was thus forced to take on a position as a fireman-oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad. As a fireman-oilman, McCoy was responsible for shoveling coal onto fires which would help to produce steam that powered the locomotive and ensuring that the train was well lubricated. Every few miles, the train would be forced to stop and he would have to walk alongside the train applying oil to the axles and bearings.

1st page of Elijah's patent application
McCoy set out to create a method of automating the task to improve efficiency and eliminate the frequent stopping necessary for lubrication of the train. In 1872 he developed a “lubricating cup” that could automatically drip oil onto the friction bearing components. He received a patent for the device later that year. McCoy continued to refine his devices, receiving nearly 60 patents over the course of his life. While the majority of his inventions related to lubrication systems, he also developed other designs. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he typically assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. In 1920, toward the end of his life, McCoy formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce lubricators bearing his name.

The “lubricating cup” was quite successful, and orders for it came in from railroad companies all over the country. Other inventors sold their own versions of the device–often inferior knock-offs, but most companies wanted Elijah's device, asking for “the Real McCoy.”*
* Evidence suggest that the attribution of the "real McCoy" to Elijah's invention may be apocryphal. See: and

Other Sources:
Brodie, James Michael, Created Equal: the Lives and Ideas of Black American Innovators. William Morrow and Company, LTD, New York, 1993. (p. 61-63)

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