Born May 2, 1844 (Colchester, Ontario, Canada)
Died October 10, 1929 (Eloise, Michigan)
American inventor Elijah McCoy patented a lubricating (reducing friction between two solid objects) device for locomotive engines that was widely used in the railroad industry for more than forty years. McCoy's oil cup, which dripped a steady flow of oil into an engine while it was running, was a major time-saver for the train engineers of the era. Previously, they had to halt the train and manually oil the engine and its parts to keep it running smoothly. McCoy had once done that very job himself, and his idea came from that experience. He never earned much money from this or from any of his other inventions, however, and died penniless.
Educated in Scotland
McCoy was born in 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, in Canada. His parents were escaped slaves from a Kentucky plantation. They had made it to Canada, where slavery was illegal, by using the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses that helped fugitive slaves reach freedom in the free states and Canada. He was one of twelve children in his family, and they lived on a farm. His father had received the land from the government as thanks for his part in stopping an 1837 rebellion against English colonial rule. Eventually the McCoys crossed the U.S.-Canadian border to Michigan. They settled in Ypsilanti, and McCoy's father found a job in the logging industry.
As a youngster McCoy liked to take things apart to see how they worked, and he usually managed to reassemble whatever it was and put it back in working order. He earned good grades and was employed in a machine shop after school to help support the large household. In 1860, the year he turned sixteen, he completed grammar school. His parents were eager to send him to college, but there was little opportunity at the time for blacks to do so in the United States. The country was on the verge of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery).
Though it was a great financial sacrifice for them, McCoy's parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied mechanical engineering. He then worked as an apprentice, or someone who is bound to work for someone else for a specific term in order to learn a trade, to complete his education, and returned home certified as a master mechanic and engineer. By then the Civil War had ended, but discrimination against African Americans had not, and McCoy had a difficult time finding a job as an engineer. Despite his credentials, few firms would hire a black man in a job that required him to give orders to white employees.
Instead McCoy took a job as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad, which ran between the cities of southeastern Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. In the steam locomotive world, a fireman was the worker who kept the fire going in the engine compartment. Also called a boilerman or coal-stoker, the fireman had to shovel coal into the burner of the furnace. That generated the heat that created the steam, which powered the engine. It was difficult work, and McCoy sometimes had to shovel as much as two tons of coal each hour. Though the job was one of the few open to African Americans, it was also considered a step in the process of becoming a locomotive engineer.
Developed automatic engine lubricator
Another one of McCoy's duties on the train was to oil the engine. This occurred frequently. The train would be halted, and he would dash out to the running board of the engine compartment and pour oil onto the parts. It was a terribly inefficient method to keep the engine running smoothly, and McCoy dreamed of a device that would keep an engine lubricated on its own, even while the train was running. Other inventors had come up with various types of automatic lubricating devices, but they did not work consistently and never caught on in the locomotive industry.
In his workshop in Ypsilanti, McCoy began working on a way to solve this problem. First he built an engine that had channels running through it that were connected to one another. These channels would let oil flow through the engine. The hardest part of the challenge was to get the oil to drip steadily. If it came out too quickly, the oil would flood the engine and damage it. McCoy's idea was a drip cup made from either metal or glass, that held the oil in a reservoir (a place where something is stored). The cup was activated by steam pressure from the engine itself. The steam rose and when it reached the cup, the heat activated a piston. A piston is a solid cylinder (tube-shaped part) that moves back and forth. The piston was connected to the reservoir, and its movement tapped the opening of the reservoir in which the oil was stored. Thus the oil flowed out at a steady rate.
McCoy's invention represented a major advance for steam engines of the day. The constant stops to oil the engine were thought to be costing the railroads about 25 percent of their profits at the time. With McCoy's drip cup the necessary lubrication of the parts came regularly and there was less friction inside the engine, which meant that its parts did not wear out as quickly. The device also reduced the risk of potentially deadly engine fires, which happened when the parts were not properly lubricated, and even made engines quieter. McCoy applied for and received a patent (a legal document giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a certain term of years) from the U.S. Patent Office. Patent No. 129,843 for "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam Engines" was granted in July 1872. The product quickly became popular, and McCoy's employer, the Michigan Central Railroad, was the first to use it on their trains. Soon it was being manufactured and attached to steam engines on other railroads. He patented three more improvements for it over the next two years.
The Real McCoy
Elijah McCoy's automatic engine lubricator became standard on train equipment in the last decades of the nineteenth century, but the inventor had assigned his patent rights to investors, which meant that other companies could buy the design and produce their own lubricators. According to traditional belief, train engineers of the era would ask if an automatic lubricator was "the real McCoy" or a cheaper imitation. This tale is widely repeated in literature about McCoy and his invention.
Language historians have tried to discover the real story behind the phrase "the real McCoy." Over the years, it became a colloquialism (a word or phrase used in casual conversation) that meant "genuine." The term may actually have been linked to a popular brand of whiskey made by an Edinburgh distillery, G. Mackay and Company. "The real McKay" was a slogan the company used in its advertising around 1870, but was thought to have been a colloquialism for authentic Scotch whiskey since at least the mid-1850s. Two other theories relate the term to either an American cattle baron of the era or to U.S. boxing champion Norman Selby (1872–1940), who called himself "Kid McCoy."
The "real McCoy"?
McCoy still encountered prejudice because of his skin color. Sometimes when a company found out that he was black, they would cancel their order for his lubricating device. He failed to earn much money from it, either, since he agreed to assign the rights to his patents to others. McCoy probably did this in order to obtain the necessary funds to start his own company and work on other inventions. This meant that his design could be sold to other companies, and imitations of poor quality soon came onto the market. Because of this, his self-lubricating device had many imitators, and this may have given rise to the phrase "the real McCoy." Supposedly engineers would ask if their train was equipped with the McCoy lubricator or one of the many, sometimes inferior, imitations. Nevertheless, it was used on many trains until about 1915, and also made countless steam engines that powered ocean liners, steamships, and factory machinery run more smoothly.
McCoy was able to quit his Michigan Central job in 1882. He moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he worked on other inventions and earned some income from consulting work. Occasionally he would appear to deliver a scheduled lecture, but when the event's organizers saw that he was black, he would be sent away. He continued with his inventions and in his spare time he volunteered with youth clubs in the city. He encouraged Detroit teenagers to pursue any educational opportunity available to them.
Other patents that McCoy received were for steam and air brakes on trains, but he also invented a new type of automobile tire, a folding ironing board, and even a lawn sprinkler. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915; see entry) mentioned McCoy in his 1909 book, Story of the Negro. Washington pointed out that McCoy had more patents to his name than any other African American inventor.
In 1920, when he was well into his seventies, McCoy founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit to produce an air-brake lubricator that he had recently patented. Two years later McCoy and his wife were involved in an automobile accident. Mary Delaney McCoy was also active in community service in the city and cofounded the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies in 1898. She died in 1923 from injuries suffered in the accident, and McCoy's health declined as well. He spent the final years of his life at the Eloise Infirmary, which was a state home for the poor outside of Detroit. He died there on October 10, 1929. A state historical marker was placed at his longtime Detroit home, at 5730 Lincoln Street, and a nearby street was named in his honor.
Elijah McCoy's second wife, Mary Eleanora McCoy, was a noted Detroit, Michigan, philanthropist (person who made an active effort to promote human welfare) and clubwoman, as African American women involved in community service were known in her day. She was born Mary Eleanora Delaney on January 7, 1846, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Her parents, Jacob Delaney and Eliza Montgomery Delaney, were staying there on their way north to Canada. Lawrenceburg was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
McCoy attended a home-based mission school where the children of slaves were taught to read and write. Around 1869 she also studied at the Freedman's School of St. Louis, Missouri. That same year she married Henry Brownlow, a St. Louis man. Historians do not know if he died, or if the couple divorced. On February 25, 1873, she married Elijah McCoy, whose first wife had died, and they settled in Detroit. They had one child together.
McCoy, along with other middle-class women of color, was active in the movement to establish clubs in the city. These were organized to provide much-needed social services and aid to the poorer members of the community. In 1895 she became one of the founders of In As Much Circle of King's Daughters and Sons Club, one of the first such groups in Detroit organized by black women to help the underprivileged. That same year she teamed with other African American women in the area and established the Michigan State Association of Colored Women. She also served as vice president of the Federated Colored Women's Clubs of Michigan. That group later merged into the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). At the NACW's 1914 gathering McCoy presented to the national president, Margaret Murray Washington, a gavel carved out of cherrywood taken from a tree that once sat on the property of John Brown (1800–1859), the noted antislavery activist.
The list of McCoy's efforts to help Detroit's black citizens was an impressive one. She was a founder of the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Women, along with Fannie Richards (1840–1922), a notable local educator and activist. Some years earlier Richards had become the first black teacher when the Detroit public school system was ordered by a court to desegregate (stop having separate facilities for whites and blacks). McCoy also held a leadership post with the Lydian Association of Detroit and was active in the women's suffrage (right to vote) movement, as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At the parade before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) in 1913, she was chosen to carry the flag at the head of the Michigan delegation of Democratic Party supporters.
That same year, McCoy was appointed by Michigan's governor to serve on the state commission that participated in the Half-Century Exposition of Freedmen's Progress. This Chicago event honored black achievement in America in the fifty years since slavery had been abolished.
For More Information
Aaseng, Nathan. Black Inventors. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1997.
Elijah McCoy. http://www.africawithin.com/bios/elijah_mccoy.htm (accessed on July 7, 2005).