McCoy, Elijah 1844–1929
Elijah McCoy 1844–1929
Elijah McCoy was working as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad, shoveling coal and lubricating engine parts with a handheld oil can, when he realized that there must be a better, more efficient way of delivering oil to the vital gears, screws, and cylinders that kept the mighty locomotive engine running. He wondered if a mechanical device existed that could automatically drip the proper amount of oil into the moving parts of the engine whenever and wherever needed so that a train would no longer have to be stopped every few miles to be manually lubricated. After experimenting for two years in a makeshift machine shop, McCoy came up with a design for a special “lubricating cup” that could be fitted into the steam cylinders of locomotives and other stationary machinery.
In 1872 McCoy was issued a patent for his invention, and within a short time his automatic lubricator—dubbed “the real McCoy” to distinguish it from the horde of less effective imitations that soon flooded the market—had been installed on locomotives around the country. “McCoy’s invention was a small thing,” wrote Aaron E. Klein in The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America, “but it speeded up the railroads, and faster railroad deliveries spurred the economic growth of a nation.”
A licensed mechanical engineer who had received his vocational training overseas, McCoy soon discovered that in the 1860s, just after the end of the Civil War, impressive qualifications were not enough to convince an American company to hire a black man for a professional, highly skilled position. For many years, the only job he could find was that of a fireman on the rapidly expanding railroads. Whatever free time he had, he devoted to inventing and perfecting mechanical devices—particularly those that could help him in his work. His lubricating cup, patented in 1872, was followed by a host of other inventions, including a lubricator for use with air-pump brakes; a graphite lubricator, specially designed to oil the new “superheater” locomotive; and a steam dome for locomotives.
In the 1880s McCoy was asked to serve as a mechanical consultant for several Detroit-area firms, and in 1920 he established his own business, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. Most of his patents—close to 50 in all—were for lubricating systems used in steam engines and factory machinery. In his later years, however, he turned his attention to domestic concerns. Among the household items he designed and patented were a folding ironing table, a lawn sprinkler, durable rubber heels for shoes, and a portable scaffold support.
Born Elijah McCoy, May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada; died in 1929 in Eloise, Ml; son of George (a farmer) and Emillia (Goins) McCoy; married Elizabeth Stewart, 1868 (died 1872); married Mary Eleanora Delancey, 1873 (died 1923). Education : Completed an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Served as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad, 1870-82; patented first invention, 1872; mechanical consultant to several Detroit engineering firms, 1882-1920; founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, 1920.
The son of former slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad, Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, in 1844. He and his 11 brothers and sisters were raised on a farm near Colchester and attended a local grammar school for black children. From an early age, McCoy had a special fascination with mechanical devices and spent much of his free time tinkering with machines. More often than not, he succeeded in repairing broken ones.
McCoy was only 16 when, with the moral and financial support of his parents, he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. At that time, training of comparable quality was not available to blacks in either the United States or Canada. While he was away, the Civil War broke out, and American slaves were freed. McCoy’s family returned to the United States and settled near Ypsilanti, Michigan. Upon completing his studies in Scotland, McCoy joined them there. He spent many long and frustrating months searching for work in engineering before finally resigning himself to the menial job of a railroad fireman. In those days, Klein noted, “engineering was regarded as white men’s work.”
As a fireman, McCoy’s primary responsibilities were to keep the firebox filled with coal and to oil the moving parts of the engine—as well as the axles, wheels, and bearings of each car—whenever the train was stopped. All heavy machinery must be lubricated periodically; without lubrication, the moving parts come into contact with each other, resulting in friction and engine burn out. Covering the parts with a thin film of oil or grease greatly reduces the friction. At that time, the only way to oil or lubricate machinery was to shut it down. Every so often, trains would be stopped or factory machines turned off so that the oilman could do his job.
Recognizing the extraordinary inefficiency of this method of lubrication—both time and money were lost whenever trains and factory machinery were stopped—McCoy quickly went to work on an alternative. For two years he experimented with devices that lubricated machines continuously. “His idea,” wrote Louis Haber in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, “was to provide, in the making of the machine, for certain canals with connecting devices to distribute the oil throughout the machinery and whenever needed, rather than have to figure out the need from memory—in other words, to make lubrication automatic.”
McCoy’s original invention, which he described as a “lubricating cup,” consisted of an oil cup built into a steam cylinder, with a hollow stem running from the bottom of the cup into the cylinder. Inside the stem was a rod with a valve at the upper end and a piston at the bottom. Steam entering the cylinder put pressure on the piston, causing the valve to rise and allowing the oil in the cup to drip out and lubricate the cylinder. In 1872 he applied for a patent for the device.
Never content to rest on his laurels, McCoy began to work on an improved version of his steam engine lubricator even before the patent had been granted. But in order to improve his workshop and devote more time to his experiments, he needed money. One way to raise funds was to sell all or part of his patent to a company or to an individual investor. Not long after he received a license to manufacture the lubricating cup, he assigned the patent to two Ypsilanti businessmen. Throughout his life, he continued to sell his patents to finance new inventions, remaining more committed to his work than to collecting royalties from its exploitation.
McCoy’s second steam cylinder lubricator, patented in May of 1873, was similar to the original but featured additional devices designed to oil the engine parts just at the point when the steam was exhausted from the cylinders. This was the most crucial time for lubrication. Despite initial skepticism from company owners, McCoy’s lubricating cups were quickly adopted in factories around the country and gained wide acceptance among railroads and shipping lines on the Great Lakes and in the West. They were later used on transatlantic liners.
In 1882 McCoy left his job with the Michigan Central Railroad to devote all of his time and energy to his inventions. He and his wife settled in an integrated neighborhood in Detroit, and he accepted a job as a mechanical consultant for the Detroit Lubricating Company. There he continued to wrestle with the problem that had originally captivated his attention—that of providing continuous and effective lubrication for railroad locomotives.
In early locomotives, the inability to equalize steam pressure within the engine made it impossible to provide proper lubrication to the cylinders while the locomotive was in operation. McCoy’s solution was to equalize the steam pressure going into and out of the engine by providing an overflow pipe, independent from the steam supply pipe. This system made it possible for oil to flow freely into the cylinders, resulting in thorough lubrication of the engine. Along with his original lubricating cup, it was one of McCoy’s most important and widely used inventions.
Other patented McCoy inventions include an independent lubrication system for a two-piston cylinder and a special method of protecting engine valves from dust and dirt, which helped to prevent accidents caused by displacement of parts. The inventor also patented a special attachment designed to ensure regular delivery of lubricant to the moving parts of cylinders in varying amounts according to the speed of the engine; an oil cup with a support and sight-feed arm; a special technique that made it possible to clean both the sight-feed glass and oil nozzle without removing them or the oil that controlled the valve; and a method of improving engine lubrication in cold weather.
After 1910 McCoy concentrated his efforts on designing lubrication systems for air brakes used in locomotives and other vehicles. Among his most successful inventions was a device that delivered two different lubricants to crucial areas within the brake system: a mixture of oil and graphite—a form of carbon—to the pistons in the steam cylinders, and a coating of simple graphite to the pistons in the air cylinders. This invention resulted in a dramatic improvement in the safety and effectiveness of air brakes. By 1920 McCoy had established his own business, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, to manufacture and sell a number of his devices, including a popular graphite lubricator designed to oil a new locomotive known as the “superheater.”
Almost as soon as McCoy’s automatic lubricators became available, a host of imitation products appeared on the market. Most did not work as well as the original inventions. Legend has it that prospective buyers, wary of purchasing machinery with an inferior lubrication system, would ask, “Is it the real McCoy?,” before agreeing to the sale. Thus, wrote Klein in The Hidden Contributors, “a new expression became part of our language, as the ‘Real McCoy’ came to mean whatever was the best and genuine article as applied to all things.”
Throughout his life, McCoy continued to work on the problem of continuous lubrication in industrial and locomotive machinery. But he also turned his inventive genius to household matters. When his wife, Mary, needed a place to iron clothes, he devised the world’s first folding ironing table. The idea for a lawn sprinkler arose from his own desire to make watering the garden less cumbersome and more efficient. Other domestic inventions included a buggy top support and a tread for tires.
Following the death of his wife in 1923, McCoy became lonely and despondent. By 1928 his own health was failing, and having used up his small savings in an ongoing effort to perfect his inventions, he entered an infirmary in Eloise, Michigan, for poor, elderly people. He died there the following year, alone and largely forgotten. Because he had sold most of his patents for a fraction of their actual worth, he was never able to capitalize on his own inventions. The devices he had labored over made others millionaires.
Yet, as Wendy Towle pointed out in The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor, McCoy’s legacy of genius “lives on in American technology and innovation.” Versions of his original lubricating cup are still used in factories, in mining machinery, in construction equipment, in naval boats, and even in space exploration vehicles. In 1975, 46 years after his death, the city of Detroit honored his life and work by placing a historic marker at the site of his home and by naming a nearby street Elijah McCoy Drive. McCoy, Klein wrote in The Hidden Contributors, “never became very well known during his lifetime. Most of the men who insisted on the ‘Real McCoy’ may indeed have been factory owners or railroad owners who discriminated against blacks in employment, and who never knew that the perfection they sought was the product of the genius of a black man.”
Haber, Louis, Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, pp. 51-59.
Klein, Aaron E., The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America, Doubleday, 1971, pp. 58-63.
Towle, Wendy, The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor, Scholastic, 1993.
Ebony, December 1966.
Jet, May 7, 1981, p. 18.
—Caroline B. D. Smith
Elijah McCoy (1843?-1929) made important contributions to the design of railroad locomotives after the Civil War. He kept pace with the progress of locomotive design, devising new lubricating systems that served the steam engines of the early twentieth century. These were demanding indeed, for they operated at high temperatures and pressures.
The date of McCoy's birth is not known; various sources give it as March 27, 1843; May 2, 1843; and May 2, 1844. His parents, George McCoy and the former Mildred Goins, were fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada from Kentucky. At the time, Canada was part of the British Empire, which had abolished slavery in 1833. When the Canadian leader, Louis Riel, launched a rebellion in 1837, the British government used troops to defeat the rebels. George McCoy enlisted with the British force. In return for his loyal service, he received 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario. Here, he raised a family of 12 children.
His father's ties to Britain proved useful as young McCoy pursued his education. As a boy, he was fascinated with tools and machines. At the age of 16, he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. In Edinburgh, McCoy won the credentials of a master mechanic and engineer. Following the Civil War, the McCoys returned to the United States and settled near Ypsilanti, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Young Elijah sought work as an engineer, but met with defeat due to racial prejudice. Nevertheless, he obtained a job as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1870. This was a responsible position, for service as a fireman was a customary prelude to promotion to the post of locomotive driver. Work as a fireman was a far cry from engineering, and it proved to be a physically demanding job. As a fireman, McCoy had to shovel coal into the firebox of his locomotive, at the rate of two tons per hour. He also had to walk around the locomotive and lubricate its moving parts using an oilcan during frequent stops, while it took on water.
Pioneer in Automatic Lubrication
Locomotives were heavy, and subjected their moving parts to considerable wear. Lubrication was essential for these parts-many of which were applied to railroad axles. These axles carried the full weight of locomotives and railroad cars, and were particularly subject to wear. But engineers had arranged for them to rotate within oil-filled chambers. The rotation of the axle carried oil into its bearing, and the oiled bearing allowed the axle to turn freely while reducing wear to a minimum. However, the direct use of oil-filled chambers did not apply to a locomotive's steam engine, which provided its power. Many parts of this engine operated under the pressure of steam, which acted to push oil away from the moving parts. This made it necessary to stop the engine when oiling it. McCoy saw that he could keep the engine running by using steam pressure to pump the oil where it was needed.
Working in a home-built machine shop in Ypsilanti, McCoy devised an invention that became known as the lubricating cup. It relied on a piston set within an oil-filled container. Steam pressure pushed on the piston and thereby drove the oil into channels that carried it to the engine's operating parts. McCoy received a United States patent for this device on June 23, 1872. He took his invention to officials of the Michigan Central Railroad and received their support. Installed on operating locomotives, it provided lubrication that was more regular and even than could be achieved by the old method of using an oilcan during intermittent stops. This proved to be quite useful, for locomotives lasted longer and needed less maintenance. McCoy's lubricating cup proved adaptable to other types of steam engines, which were used in factories and at sea. Versions of this cup became standard components on many types of heavy machinery, entering service on railways of the West, on Great Lakes steamships, and even on transatlantic liners.
New Lubricators Served Powerful Engines
McCoy left the Michigan Central in 1882 and moved to Detroit, where he devoted a great deal of time to his inventions. He also worked as an industrial consultant, assisting the Detroit Lubricator Company and other firms. The technical demands of railroads soon provided him with further challenges.
With the increase of industry and passenger travel, railroad companies needed larger locomotives. James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad, introduced monsters that were up to four times larger than their predecessors, along with large-capacity freight cars. Such locomotives burned coal in large amounts, and demanded high horsepower, while using less coal. The solution lay in the use of superheated steam, with high temperature and pressure. Superheating boosted the engines' efficiency, allowing a locomotive to get more miles per ton of coal. It also brought new problems in lubrication.
The author Robert C. Hayden, in his book Eight Black American Inventors, quoted an article in the Engineer's Journal: "There is no denying the fact that our present experience in lubricating the cylinders of engines using super-heated steam is anything but satisfactory … If the oil feed was made regular so the steam would distribute it over the bearing surface of cylinder while the engine was working, these bearing surfaces would be better protected than is now otherwise possible."
Rather than use oil alone as a lubricant, designers preferred to mix the oil with powdered graphite, a form of carbon. Powdered graphite is soft and greasy, and easily withstands high temperatures. However, because it is a powder rather than a liquid, it can clog an engine. In April 1915, McCoy received a patent for what he called a "Locomotive Lubricator." Within his patent application, he claimed that this invention would permit the use of graphite "without danger of clogging."
Hayden cites a letter from a railroad superintendent: "We have found the McCoy Graphite Lubricator to be of considerable assistance in lubrication of locomotives equipped with superheaters. … There is a decided advantage in better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings, and as a well lubricated engine is more economical in the use of fuel, there is unquestionably a saving in fuel."
The Real McCoy
In reviewing the life of this inventor, writers and essayists often note that railroad purchasing agents commonly insisted on buying "the real McCoy." Other inventors were offering lubricators that competed with those of McCoy, but these agents would accept no substitutes. Many of these authors assert that the phrase "real McCoy" passed out of the specialized world of railroad engineering and entered general usage, where it came to mean "the genuine article."
While McCoy's inventions made millions of dollars, little of this money reached his pockets. Lacking the capital with which to build his lubricators in large numbers, he sold many of his patent rights to well-heeled investors. In return, he was given only the modest sums that allowed him to continue his work. McCoy received at least 72 patents during his lifetime, most of which dealt with lubricating devices, but retained ownership of only a few of them.
In 1868, McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart; she died in 1872, at the age of 25. A year later, he married Mary Eleanora Delaney. This marriage lasted half a century, but did not produce children.
In 1920, at the age of 77, McCoy joined with investors and founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, serving as vice-president. The firm manufactured and sold his graphite lubricators, including an advanced version that also lubricated a railroad train's air brakes. Soon afterward, he and his wife, Mary, were involved in a traffic accident. Mary received injuries from which she never fully recovered, and which hastened her death. She died in 1923.
For McCoy, the end now approached as well. His health deteriorated and, in 1928, he entered an infirmary. Suffering from hypertension and senile dementia, McCoy died on October 10, 1929 in Eloise, Michigan.
McCoy was remembered in Detroit long after his death. In 1975, the city celebrated Elijah McCoy Day, as officials placed a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a street for him. These posthumous honors were modest, but they came a century after his invention of the lubricating cup, and demonstrated his enduring legacy.
Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Haskens, Jim. Outward Dreams. Walker, 1991.
Hayden, Robert C. Eight Black American Inventors. Addison-Wesley, 1972.
Klein, Aaron E. The Hidden Contributors. Doubleday, 1971.
Towle, Wendy. The Real McCoy. Scholastic, 1993. □
Canadian-born mechanical engineer and inventor. The son of former slaves from Kentucky, he revolutionized the industrial machine industry with his lubricator cup, which allowed small amounts of oil to drip into a machine as it worked. The creation of the lubricator cup dramatically sped up production in factories and on farms, as workers no longer had to stop at regular intervals to apply lubricants by hand.