Though his name is not often mentioned today, in every sense of the world this son of slaves was the real McCoy. He would overcome the circumstances of his birth, the prejudice of his era and the obstacles placed before him by racism to achieve great things.
His ingenuity would lead to greater efficiencies in travel across the United States and beyond, and leave his name forever etched as a great black inventor.
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. George joined the Canadian Army, fighting in the Rebel War and then raised his family as free Canadian citizens on a 160-acre homestead.
At an early age, Elijah showed an interest in mechanics, often taking items apart and putting them back together again. Recognizing his keen abilities, George and Emillia saved enough money to send Elijah to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he could study mechanical engineering.
After finishing his studies as a “master mechanic and engineer”, he returned to the United States which had just seen the end of the Civil War –– and the emergence of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Elijah moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, but was unable to find work as an engineer.
He was thus forced to take on a position as a fireman/oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad.
As a fireman, McCoy was responsible for shovelling coal on to fires which would help to produce steam that powered the locomotive. As an oilman, Elijah was responsible for ensuring that the train was well lubricated. After a 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.
In an effort to improve efficiency and eliminate the frequent stopping necessary for lubrication of the train, McCoy set out to create a method of automating the task. In 1872 he developed a “lubricating cup” that could automatically drip oil when and where needed. He received a patent for the device later that year.
The “lubricating cup” met with enormous success, and orders for it came in from railroad companies all over the country. Other inventors attempted to sell their own versions of the device but most companies wanted the authentic device, requesting “the Real McCoy”.
In 1868, Elijah married Ann Elizabeth Stewart. Sadly, Elizabeth passed away just four years later. In 1873, McCoy married again, this time his bride was Mary Eleanor Delaney and the couple would eventually settle in Detroit, Michigan, together for the next 50 years.
McCoy remained interested in continuing to perfect his invention and to create more. He thus sold some percentages of rights to his patent to finance building a workshop. He made continued improvements to the “lubricating cup”. The patent application described it as a device that “provides for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine in order to keep it lubricated properly and continuously and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically”.
The device would be adjusted and modified in order to apply it to different types of machinery. Versions of the cup would soon be used in steam engines, naval vessels, oil-drilling rigs, mining equipment, in factories and construction sites.
Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions. Later, Elijah McCoy became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters.
In 1916, McCoy created the graphite lubricator which allowed new super heater trains and devices to be oiled. In 1920, Elijah established the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. With his new company, he improved and sold the graphite lubricator, as well as other inventions which came to him out of necessity.
He developed and patented a portable ironing board after his wife expressed a need for an easier way of ironing clothes. When he desired an easier and faster way of watering his lawn, he created and patented the lawn sprinkler.
In 1922, Elijah and Mary were involved in an automobile accident, both suffering severe injuries. Mary would die from the injuries.
Unfortunately, McCoy suffered in his later years, enduring a financial, mental and physical breakdown. He died on October 10, 1929, from senile dementia caused by hypertension after spending a year in the Eloise Infirmary in Michigan.
McCoy left behind a legacy of successful inventions that would benefit mankind for another century, and his name would come to symbolize quality workmanship –– the real McCoy!