Elijah McCoy: African-American Genius Inventor

Let’s explore an African-American Genius Inventor who left behind a legacy of inventions that presently benefit our society today.
Birthplace: Ontario, Canada
Industry: Engineering
Success: Inventor of Automatic Lubricator in Railroad
Recognition: Inducted into the 2001 National Inventors Hall of Fame
Honors: The Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional US Patent and Trademark Office was inaugurated in Detroit, Michigan

Let’s dive into history. 📖

Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Jun 14, 2022
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A Glance at the Emergence of a Genius

Imagine riding on a train, and before long, it has to stop to let oil field workers lubricate the machine to avoid breakdowns.

You see men shoveling coal onto fires to produce steam to help power the engine. You see men pouring lubricant into the machinery. Hot and dangerous work!

Wouldn’t you admire the bravery of these men? Indeed you should!

Elijah McCoy did precisely those things for years until he found a way to automate lubrication so the train didn’t have to stop for lubrication anymore. And men’s lives wouldn’t be in so much peril.

How?

Let’s take a glance at the emergence of a genius.

Early Life

Family

Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy’s life started on May 2, 1844. He was born in Colchester, Ontario, to George and Mildred Goins McCoy.

Born free on the Ontario shores of Lake Erie to parents who fled enslavement. To understand the struggle George and Mildred McCoy had during their time, we had to know important parts of American history, such as African-American history and fugitive slaves that led to underground rails being freed from enslavement.

Despite being a Canadian-American, Elijah McCoy was not exempted from his African-American ancestry that faced many challenges.

 

The term fugitive slaves or runaway slaves were used in the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe enslaved people who fled slavery. Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 are also included in this definition. 

As liberationists, they refer to themselves as freedom seekers in order not to suggest that the enslaved person is the injured party and the slave-holder is the offender.

As fugitive slaves, Elijah’s parents escaped from Kentucky to Ontario via helpers through the Underground Railroad. George and Mildred arrived in what was then known as Upper Canada in 1837 via Detroit.

Elijah had eleven siblings, and ten were born in Ontario, from Alfred (1836) to William (1859).

Early in his life, Elijah McCoy showed a keen interest in mechanics. Elijah was particularly fascinated by mechanical devices, and he spent much of his boyhood tinkering with machines. The fact that he often repaired broken ones made his parents happy.

McCoy attended black schools in Colchester Township under the Common Schools Act as amended in 1850.

Why was there a need for segregation?

In everyday life, racial segregation is the systematic separation of people into racial or ethnic groupings.

According to the Statute of the International Criminal Court, racial segregation is apartheid and a crime against humanity. Segregation can take the form of physical separation between races and the need for individuals of various races to utilize different institutions such as schools and hospitals. 

It can be used for dining in restaurants, drinking from public fountains, using public restrooms, going to school, going to the movies, riding buses, renting or purchasing a property, and renting hotel rooms.

So at age 15, Elijah McCoy was sent to Scotland.

Education

McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study and begin an apprenticeship at the University of Edinburgh with the help of his parents. Having become a certified mechanical engineer, Elijah McCoy returned to Michigan to join his family.

In 1859, McCoy's family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the United States. Returning to America, Elijah settled on the farm of John and Maryann Starkweather in Ypsilanti. George established a tobacco and cigar business by using his skills as a tobacconist.

8 Notable Inventor Alumni of University of Edinburgh

Early Career

Bloom Where You are Planted

Even with excellent credentials, McCoy could not find work as an engineer because of racial barriers. 

Elijah could only find work as a fireman and oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad, so McCoy took on that position. Working as a fireman/oilman was a far cry from engineering, but it allowed him to develop his ideas for making the lubrication of moving parts much easier.

Elijah could only find work as a fireman and oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad

‍It was in this occupation that he developed his first significant inventions. Elijah McCoy invented an automatic lubricator to oil steam engines of ships and locomotives.

As a result of his invention, he could patent 1872 Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines (US Patent 129,843).

McCoy had patented similar automatic oilers previously, and McCoy observed firsthand the shortcomings of the present system of oiling axles. This gave birth to the pioneered concept of continuous lubrication.

In turn, Elijah invented a device called the lubricating cup or the oil-drip cup, as it was colloquially known for its ability to move oil evenly over the engine parts while it was going.

Lubricators enabled railroads to run trains faster and more profitably with fewer stops for lubrication and maintenance.

Lubricators enabled railroads to run trains faster and more profitably with fewer stops for lubrication and maintenance.

It would be adjusted and modified to apply to different types of machinery. Versions of the cup were later used for steam engines, naval vessels, oil-drilling rigs, mining equipment, factories, and construction sites.

Elijah McCoy's most famous invention would be the lubricating cup that automatically drips oil when and where needed. 

The majority of his inventions are related to lubrication systems. But out of necessity, he also developed designs, including an ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, and other machines.

Elijah McCoy's most famous invention would be the lubricating cup

In 1872, McCoy received a patent for the device. It was enormously successful. Orders for the lubricating cup came in from railroad companies all over the US. Many inventors attempted to sell their versions, but most companies wanted an authentic device. They would request for the Real McCoy.

People sometimes ask for the real McCoy to ensure they get the real thing—a high-quality product or service. It's unclear where this phrase originated, although many assume it was coined by Elijah McCoy to himself, one of America's most prolific innovators.

In 1872, McCoy received a patent for the device

In 1873, McCoy’s patented his second steam cylinder lubricator. The device was similar to the original but featured additional features devised to oil the engine parts just at the exact time when the steam was exhausted from the cylinders. They were later used on transatlantic liners.

In 1882, McCoy's hydrostatic lubricator for locomotive engines and his designs for ship engines considerably impacted the transport industry in the late 19th century.

Technology descended from this and continued to be widely used throughout the 20th century. According to the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, almost all railroads in North America used McCoy lubricators by 1899.

In 1915, he patented the graphite lubricator designed for superheater locomotive engines. This became his most elaborate innovation. Elijah McCoy continued to improve and build additional devices and was featured in journals such as the Railroad Gazette at the time.

Most of his inventions were for lubricating systems, including one in 1898 that incorporated a glass ‘sight-feed’ tube to check grease supply rate (US Patent 614,307).

Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company

Another lesson we can take from McCoy is branding.

In 1920, nearing the end of his life,  finally, McCoy formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce lubricators bearing his name.

McCoy’s ingenuity earned him a place in the Black community that has lasted. He continued to create until his passing, gaining 57 patents, most linked to lubrication, but others focused on lawn sprayers and ironing boards.

He became well-known among his Black contemporaries around the turn of the century. In his book Story of the Negro (1909), Booker T. Washington credited him with producing more patents than any other Black innovator at the time.

He frequently transferred his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors since he lacked the funds to mass-produce his lubricators.‍

In popular culture

  • An advertisement for Old Taylor bourbon from 1966 featured Elijah McCoy with a picture and the term “the real McCoy,” concluding, “But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name.”
  • In 2006, Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie’s The Real McCoy depicted the life of McCoy, his struggles as an African American, and his inventions. Initially produced in Toronto, the play also made it in the United States, such as in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 2011, where the Black Rep Theatre performed it.
  • The novel Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman tells the story of a racial dystopia in which the roles of black and white people have been reversed; Elijah McCoy is among the black scientists, inventors, and pioneers mentioned in a history class that Blackman never took in school.

Legacy and Honours

Booker T. Washington recognized McCoy for producing patents more than any other black inventor up to that time. McCoy's creativity and innovations gave him elite status in the black community that has persisted today.

According to Aaron E. Klein, "McCoy's invention was a small thing, but it speeded up the railroads, and faster railroad deliveries spurred the economic growth of a nation."

In The Real McCoy: The Life of an African-American Inventor, Wendy Towle pointed out that McCoy's legacy of genius "lives on in American technology and innovation." 

Variants of his original lubricating cup are still widely used in factories, mining machinery, construction equipment, naval boats, and even space exploration vehicles. The impact of McCoy's ingenuity and the quality of his inventions have created a level of distinction which bears his name. The real McCoy.

This expression became part of our language, as the ‘Real McCoy’ meant whatever was the best and genuine article applied to all things. And so, together with his inventions, his name is one of Elijah McCoy’s most significant legacies.

Legacy and Honours
  • 1974. At the McCoys’ former home and gravesite at 5720 Lincoln Avenue, Michigan erected a historical marker.
  • 1975. The city of Detroit commemorated Elijah McCoy Day by placing a historical marker at the site of his home. In addition, a street was named in his honor.
  • 1994. Elijah McCoy’s first workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, now has a historical marker.
  • 2001. Elijah McCoy has been inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.
  • 2012. The Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional US Patent and Trademark Office was inaugurated in Detroit, Michigan.
  • 2022. May 2 marked his 178th birthday with a Google Doodle in Canada and the US.
Black Innovators of the Industrial Revolution

Personal Life

In 1868, Elijah McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart. Ann Elizabeth Stewart passed away four years after their marriage.

Elijah remarried for the second time in 1873 to Mary Eleanor Delaney. When McCoy found employment in Detroit, the couple moved there. The Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men was founded in 1898 by Mary McCoy.

The McCoys had an automobile accident in 1922. Mary died, while Elijah suffered critical injuries from which he never fully recovered. The 85-year-old McCoy died in the Eloise Infirmary in Nankin Township, now Westland, Michigan, on October 10, 1929, from injuries sustained in a car accident seven years earlier.

Elijah McCoy’s remains are buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.

Key Takeaway

Innovation and passion.

When I think about Elijah McCoy, these two words come to mind. His success and everlasting legacy are founded on these two commendable traits.

He fueled the economy to the next century and beyond with his engineering genius. Our means of transportation wouldn’t be where it is today if not for him.

The quality of his inventions is as good as a solid handshake in the olden days, as good as the ink on the contracts in modern business settings–The Real McCoy indeed!

 

What is lacking in the market, he created. (Demand generation, right?) And he doesn’t stop from there. Continuous improvement (growth tracking!) is the name of his game. There are so many things we can learn from him. 

Imagine if Elijah McCoy didn’t take the job as a fireman and oiler because it was below his level of expertise. Would the economy boom as fast as it did because of faster transportation?

There is always room for creativity and improvement in life and business.

Imitate Elijah McCoy by not allowing what you are to interfere with your potential for brilliance. Due to racial segregation, his employment options were limited, but this did not restrict him from showcasing skills and innovation.

In business, Elijah made sure his products were of quality work. McCoy was the real thing, and the footsteps left by the real McCoy must be imitated.

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” - Steve Jobs

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” - Steve Jobs

Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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