In honor of Black History Month, I give you the story of the great locally born inventor – Elijah McCoy.
On either May 2, 1843 or 1844 (depending on the source) a new baby boy was born free in Colchester, Ontario to George McCoy and Mildred Goins. The McCoys were runaway slaves from Kentucky who had arrived in this hamlet about 30 miles south of Windsor via the underground railway.
George McCoy had served honorably in the 1837 Rebel War so the Canadian government had given him 160 acres of farmland near Colchester upon discharge. When Elijah was three, his growing family moved back to the U.S., settling in Detroit, Michigan. He was the third child in a family of twelve children.
As a boy, Elijah showed exceptional mechanical abilities. He attended public school until the age of 15 when his parents, (even though his God-fearing father may not have understood his interest) saved the money to send him to Edinburgh, Scotland to pursue a Mechanical Engineering apprenticeship. This was at a time when it was difficult for blacks to obtain the same kind of training in the United States of America.
Elijah returned just after the Civil War and the beginning of the “Emancipation Proclamation.” He applied for an engineering position with Michigan Central Railroad but management could not imagine that a “Negro” could be an engineer.
He was offered the position of locomotive fireman. Elijah’s job was to shovel coal into the fires that heated the water in the boilers that ran the engine. He shoveled over two tons of coal into the firebox every hour! His job was hot, difficult, and dangerous. He also did the job of train oilman.
One of the problems of hot, high pressure steam is that it is murderously corrosive of most metals, and a thin film of lubrication is required to protect and seal the steam cylinders and pistons. At that time, trains needed to periodically stop and be lubricated, to prevent overheating, which Elijah noticed was expensive and wasted a lot of time.
Elijah was also alarmed by the injuries and deaths caused when workers attempted to lubricate moving machinery. Many of these workers were young black boys employed in the position because they were small and agile.
In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, McCoy carried out his own higher skilled work, developing improvements and inventions. His tinkering led to an invention that would not only change his life, it would save lives and serve to advance the industrial age significantly: a lubricator for steam engines that did not require the machinery to stop. His lubricator used steam pressure to pump oil wherever it was needed, even while the machine was working. It was soon used on engines and train locomotives, on Great Lakes steamships, on ocean liners, and on machinery in factories.
Elijah’s Improvements on Lubricators for Steam Engines was patented in 1872 in the United States US patent #129,843 and in 1874 in Canada.
The drip cup device was so effective and so highly regarded that other manufacturers copied it. However, none worked as well as McCoy’s invention. No engine or machine was considered complete until it had a McCoy Lubricator. One theory as to where the expression “The Real McCoy” originated is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name, and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”. The phrase “real McCoy” soon caught on as a way of saying that people were getting the very best equipment available.
The Michigan Central Railroad promoted McCoy to an instructor in the use of his new inventions. Later, he became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters. By 1923 Elijah was known throughout the world. His inventions were also patented in Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia.
In all, he was issued more than 57 patents for his inventions during his lifetime including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.
In 1868, Elijah McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart who unfortunately, died four years later. In 1873 he married his second wife, Mary Eleanora Delaney. (Click on her name to learn more about this fascinating woman. I wish I could find a photo of her, but I can’t.) They moved to Detroit when he found work there. Mary McCoy was one of the founders of the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898. The couple did not have children.
In 1920, McCoy opened his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. Like so many other inventors of this era, Elijah used up his money trying to perfect his inventions. Unfortunately, he suffered in his later years, enduring a financial, mental, and physical breakdown.
Elijah died in Detroit on October 10, 1929 at the age of 86 from senile dementia caused by hypertension after spending a year in the Eloise Infirmary (also known as the Michigan State Asylum) in Michigan. He had continued to suffer from injuries from a car accident in 1922 in which his wife Mary died.
He was buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
Today, Elijah’s lubrication processes are still used in machinery such as cars, locomotives, ships, rockets and many other machines. He is credited with having helped modernize the industrial world with his inventions.
So next time you say, “Yup, it’s the real McCoy” you’ll know why.
A play based on Elijah’s life, “The Real McCoy”, written and directed by Andrew Moodie, ran in St. Louis, Missouri in 2011.