Biography of Elijah McCoy, American Inventor

Elijah McCoy

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Elijah McCoy (May 2, 1844–October 10, 1929) was an African-American inventor who received more than 50 patents for his inventions during his lifetime. His most famous invention was a cup that fed lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small tube. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression "the real McCoy"—a term meaning "the real deal" or "the genuine article."

Fast Facts: Elijah McCoy

  • Known For: McCoy was an African-American inventor who improved steam engine technology by designing an automatic lubricator.
  • Born: May 2, 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada
  • Parents: George and Mildred McCoy
  • Died: October 10, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan
  • Awards and Honors: National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • Spouse(s): Ann Elizabeth Stewart (m. 1868-1872), Mary Eleanor Delaney (m.1873-1922)

Early Life

Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. His parents—George and Mildred McCoy—were former slaves who had fled Kentucky for Canada on the Underground Railroad. George McCoy enlisted in the British forces, and in return, he was awarded 160 acres of land for his service. When Elijah was 3, his family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Detroit, Michigan. They later moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where George opened a tobacco business. Elijah had 11 brothers and sisters. Even as a young child, he enjoyed playing with tools and machines and experimenting with different ways to fix and improve them.

Career

At the age of 15, McCoy left the United States for a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, Scotland. After becoming certified, he returned to Michigan to pursue a position in his field. However, McCoy—like other African-Americans at the time—faced racial discrimination that prevented him from earning a position appropriate to his level of education. The only job he could find was that of a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. The fireman on a train was responsible for fueling the steam engine and the ​oiler lubricated the engine's moving parts as well as the train's axles and bearings.

Because of his training, McCoy was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. At that time, trains needed to periodically stop and be lubricated to prevent overheating. McCoy developed a lubricator for steam engines that did not require the train to stop. His automatic lubricator used steam pressure to pump oil wherever it was needed. McCoy received a patent for this invention in 1872, the first of many he would receive for his improvements to steam engine lubricators. These advancements improved transit by allowing trains to travel farther without pausing for maintenance and re-oiling.

McCoy's device not only improved train systems; versions of the lubricator eventually appeared in oil-drilling and mining equipment and construction and factory tools. According to the patent, it did so by "provid[ing] for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine in order to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically." As a result, the lubricator improved efficiency in a variety of fields.

In 1868, Elijah McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart, who died four years later. A year later, McCoy married his second wife, Mary Eleanora Delaney. The couple had no children.

McCoy continued to improve upon his automatic lubricator design and make designs for new devices. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators and the Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions. Later, McCoy became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters. McCoy also obtained patents for some of his other inventions, including an ironing board and a lawn sprinkler, which he had designed to reduce the work involved in his household tasks.

In 1922, McCoy and his wife Mary were in a car accident. Mary later died from her injuries, and McCoy experienced severe health problems for the rest of his life, complicating his professional obligations.

'The Real McCoy'

The expression "the real McCoy"—meaning "the real thing" (not a fake or inferior copy)—is a popular idiom among English-speakers. Its exact etymology is unknown. Some scholars believe it comes from the Scottish "the real McKay," which first appeared in a poem in 1856. Others believe the expression was first used by railroad engineers looking for "the real McCoy system," i.e. a lubricator equipped with Elijah McCoy's automatic drip cup rather than a poor knockoff. Whatever the true etymology, the expression has been associated with McCoy for some time. In 2006, Andrew Moodie developed a play based on the inventor's life called "The Real McCoy."

Death

In 1920, McCoy opened his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, to produce his products himself rather than licensing his designs to existing companies (many of the products he designed did not feature his name). Unfortunately, McCoy suffered in his later years, enduring a financial, mental, and physical breakdown that landed him in the hospital. He died on October 10, 1929, from senile dementia caused by hypertension after spending a year in the Eloise Infirmary in Michigan. McCoy was buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.

Legacy

McCoy was widely admired for his ingenuity and accomplishments, especially in the African-American community. Booker T. Washington—an African-American educator and leader—cited McCoy in his "Story of the Negro" as the African-American inventor with the greatest number of patents. In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. A historical marker stands outside his old workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Detroit was named in his honor.

Sources

  • Asante, Molefi Kete. "100 Greatest African Americans: a Biographical Encyclopedia." Prometheus Books, 2002.
  • Sluby, Patricia Carter. "The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity." Praeger, 2008.
  • Towle, Wendy, and Wil Clay. "The Real McCoy: the Life of an African-American Inventor." Scholastic, 1995.