Elijah McCoy, The Black Inventor Behind ‘The Real McCoy’

In 1872, Elijah McCoy created a tiny gadget that immediately lubricated steam engines while they were operating — and revolutionized the railroad industry in the course of action.

Elijah McCoy

Ypsilanti Historic CultureInventor Elijah McCoy skilled in Scotland but could not come across a career as an engineer in the U.S.

A person yr in advance of the Civil War broke out, Elijah McCoy crossed the Atlantic to attend a Scottish college. McCoy’s mother and father were born enslaved, but they escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. That gave the 15-yr-outdated the flexibility to pursue his desire of turning out to be a mechanical engineer.

Eight decades of arduous schooling prepared McCoy for a vocation as an engineer. But when he returned to America just after the Civil War, McCoy could not discover a work. Organizations weren’t willing to use Black engineers.

Alternatively, McCoy was pressured to acquire a occupation as a railroad laborer. But the engineer refused to give up. McCoy went on to make a groundbreaking invention that modified railroad record. And that was just the start out for Elijah McCoy.

Who Was Elijah McCoy?

Ahead of Elijah McCoy’s start on Might 2, 1843, his parents fled enslavement. George and Mildred McCoy escaped bondage in Kentucky and traveled north on the Underground Railroad. They arrived at Ontario, Canada, wherever they welcomed Elijah into their loved ones.

In 1847, the McCoys left Ontario for Michigan. Quickly, young Elijah confirmed an aptitude for mechanics. At just 15 decades aged, McCoy traveled from Michigan to Scotland, where by he properly trained as an engineer at the University of Edinburgh.

According to the university, McCoy completed an apprenticeship program in engineering and gained his certification as a mechanical engineer. The process was arduous – completely, McCoy invested eight years instruction as an engineer.

The younger engineer moved again to Michigan to look for do the job. The year was 1866 – the Civil War had just ended, and the 13th Amendment experienced abolished slavery months earlier.

But as a Black male, McCoy could not obtain an engineering position.

Elijah McCoy’s Oil Drip Cup

In the put up-Civil War period, Black guys and girls ended up still excluded from skilled jobs. For Elijah McCoy, that intended he struggled to come across operate as an engineer.

No organization was eager to employ a Black engineer. Even following the close of slavery, and even in the North, white employers considered that Black employees were being only suited for handbook labor.

Michigan Central Railroad

Kalamazoo General public LibraryAn 1877 photograph of a Michigan Central Railroad locomotive pulling into the station at Kalamazoo, Michigan.

In its place of working as an engineer, McCoy took a occupation at Michigan Central Railboard as a fireman and oiler.

McCoy’s operate was labor-intensive and taxing. At the time, locomotives demanded regular handbook oiling, according to the Detroit Historic Culture. The trains would pull into roundhouses wherever McCoy and his fellow oilers applied lubricant to the axles and other going sections.

Steam locomotives ended up so rapidly that they quickly burned by the lubricant. That intended trains experienced to stop often for upkeep — a high priced and time-consuming dilemma.

But as an engineer doing the job as an oiler, Elijah McCoy swiftly formulated a resolution to the issue. McCoy designed a lubrication cup that evenly and mechanically dispersed oil across every single going element. Alternatively of usually halting for maintenance, locomotives could run for drastically longer.

McCoy’s creation was an quick hit. The “oil drip cup,” as it was regarded, grew to become a typical resource in every single prepare. Steamships and other hefty devices also utilized McCoy’s automatic lubricator.

Elijah McCoy Automatic Lubrication Device

U.S. Patent Business officeElijah McCoy’s initially patent, for a lubricating tool, came in 1872.

Fortunately, McCoy submitted a patent on his creation in 1872. But the young railroad employee could not afford to pay for to make the lubricators himself. So he handed more than the rights to manufacture the product or service to other people.

An creation that ought to have made McCoy prosperous remaining him still doing the job on the railroad.

Dozens imitated McCoy’s product. But the original lubricator worked much better than the knockoffs. Railroad engineers would specially question for McCoy’s oil drip cup to steer clear of inferior products and solutions.

Engineers would request for “the serious McCoy” – and quickly, the phrase became common to explain any legitimate posting about a affordable knockoff.

Fifty Yrs of Revolutionary Inventions

Elijah McCoy ongoing to perform on the railroads. He perfected the lubricating cup and ongoing to patent his innovations.

But McCoy’s gains ended up confined. Considering that he lacked the cash to make the lubricators on his have, McCoy assigned his patent legal rights to the railroad company. Afterwards, he marketed patents to buyers to elevate revenue.

When numerous of McCoy’s patents came from railroad-related inventions, the engineer also patented work in other areas. He developed a moveable ironing board encouraged by his spouse and a garden sprinkler. McCoy also developed a rubber-soled shoe.

Elijah McCoy Ironing Board Invention

U.S. Patent BusinessThe moveable ironing board patented by Elijah McCoy.

Previous age did not cease McCoy from making groundbreaking inventions. In accordance to Smithsonian Journal, in 1916, at the age of 72, McCoy patented a new “graphite lubricator.” The up to date design used a combine of oil and graphite that improved performance for the 20th-century engines that ran even hotter than their predecessors.

Although Elijah McCoy gained his to start with patent in 1872, it took him just about 50 decades to increase ample funds to start off his very own business. In 1920, McCoy made the Elijah McCoy Production Organization. The lubricating cup he had invented fifty percent a century before would now bear the name of its creator.

In 1922, just two many years after opening his have organization, McCoy and his wife had been in a car or truck crash. The collision killed McCoy’s spouse and still left him with really serious injuries. Not able to work, the inventor died impoverished 7 a long time later at the Eloise Infirmary outside of Detroit at the age of 85.

The Legacy of Elijah McCoy

During his life time, Elijah McCoy obtained little acknowledgment outdoors of trade publications and African American newspapers for his get the job done. His innovations not often carried his name. And however he grew to become a consultant for engineering companies, McCoy still could not find a business prepared to employ the service of a Black engineer.

But Black Americans celebrated McCoy. In 1909, Booker T. Washington praised McCoy as the Black inventor with the most patents up to that point, in accordance to the Detroit Historical Culture.

Railroad Workers

Norfolk Southern CorporationBlack employees frequently took on guide labor tasks in the railroad industry.

Just after his loss of life, McCoy was last but not least recognized as a revolutionary inventor. In the 1970s, the condition of Michigan set up a historic marker outdoors McCoy’s house, and the city of Detroit named a street immediately after the inventor.

In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Corridor of Fame. And in 2012, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office environment reopened its Detroit branch with the identify the Elijah J. McCoy U.S. Patent and Trademark Business.

Despite the fact that racism prevented Elijah McCoy from doing the job as an engineer, prejudice could not halt McCoy’s prolific innovations. And when the engineer obtained tiny reward for his patents all through his life, right now, McCoy is celebrated as a groundbreaking Black inventor.


Elijah McCoy was one particular of several Black inventors who reworked modern-day daily life. Subsequent, read through about Garrett Morgan, inventor of the lifestyle-preserving gas mask, and then discover about the good Black inventors who altered heritage.

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