Elijah J. McCoy was an African-American engineer and inventor.
McCoy was famous for his fifty-seven U.S. patents with most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines.
Elijah McCoy was born free in Canada on the 2nd of May 1844. His parents were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada through some helpers via the Underground Railroad. He had eleven siblings.
As a result of the 1850 Common Schools act which segregated the Upper Canadian schools, McCoy was educated in black schools in Colchester Township.
At age fifteen, he was sent to Scotland for apprenticeship and study. After some years, he was certified in Scotland as a mechanical engineer and returned to join his family.
McCoy worked as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad when he returned. He mostly did highly skilled work like developing improvements and inventions in a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti.
He created an automatic lubricator for oiling the Steam engines of ships and locomotives. The inventor received the patent in 1872 as an “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines”
He continued to refine devices and design new ones. Fifty of his patents dealt with lubricating systems.
After the turn of the century, he got noticed among his black contemporaries and was recognized as one who had more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This originality gave him an honored status in the black community.
Most of his patents were related to lubrication, while others included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Since he lacked the capital to manufacture his lubricators in large quantities, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. However, lubricators with his name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career.
He founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his works.
Up till today, historians have not agreed on the importance of his contributions to the field of lubrication. However, he was credited in some biographical sketches with revolutionizing the railroad or machine industries with his devices.
The early twentieth-century lubrication literature barely mention him. For instance, his name was absent from E. L. Ahrons’ ‘Lubrication of Locomotives’ which was published in 1922. But the write-up identified several other early pioneers and companies of the field.
THE REAL MCCOY
The popular expression, “The Real McCoy” meaning the real thing, was associated with his oil-drip cup invention.
One theory was that railroad engineers who wanted to avoid inferior copies would request it by name and ask if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”. Thus, this theory was mentioned in Elijah McCoy’s biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
In 1868, McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart and she died after four years.
In 1873, he re-married Mary Eleanor Delaney. She helped found the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898.
Elijah McCoy died on the 10th of October 1929 in Michigan at the age of eighty-five. This was after suffering injuries from a car accident seven years earlier (the same car accident to which his wife Mary died).
He was buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Michigan.
Malorie Blackman, in her novel Noughts and Crosses, describes a racial dystopia in which the roles of black and white people are reversed. Elijah McCoy is one of the black scientists, inventors, and pioneers mentioned in a history class that Blackman never learned about in school.
In 1974, the state of Michigan put a historical marker ‘P25170′ at McCoy’s’ former home in and at his gravesite.
A year after, Detroit celebrated the inventor’s Day by placing a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a nearby street after him.
McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Virginia in 2001.
The Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office “the first USPTO satellite office” was opened in Detroit in 2012.