Elijah McCoy: African-American Genius Inventor

Elijah McCoy: African-American Genius Inventor
Updated date:
Mar 21, 2022

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Imagine riding on a train, and before long, it has to stop to let oilmen 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.

Elijah McCoy 1844–1929: A Glance at the Emergence of a Genius

Elijah McCoy was an African American born free in 1844 in Canada to George and Mildred McCoy. His parents were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via helpers through the Underground Railroad. He had ten siblings.

Even as a young boy, McCoy showed a strong interest in mechanics. McCoy had a particular fascination with mechanical devices and spent much of his boyhood tinkering with machines. His parents are happy to see that he succeeded in repairing broken ones more often than not.

So at the young age of 15, with the moral and financial support of his parents, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering.

After becoming certified as a mechanical engineer, he returned home to Michigan. 

Bloom Where You are Planted

Even with excellent credentials, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer because of racial barriers. He then took on a position as a fireman/oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this occupation that he developed his first significant inventions. 

Work 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.

Pioneered Concept of Continuous Lubrication

McCoy observed firsthand the shortcomings of the present system of oiling axles, so he invented a device he called lubricating cup to distribute the oil evenly over the engine's moving part.

And in 1872, McCoy invented the 'lubricating cup' that automatically drips oil when and where needed.

The lubricating cup would be Elijah McCoy’s most famous invention. 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.

McCoy continued to refine his devices, receiving 57 patents throughout his esteemed life. 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. 

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?

Inventions Gained Wide Acceptance

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 the authentic device. They would request for "the Real McCoy."

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.

In 1915, he patented the graphite lubricator designed for “superheater” locomotive engines. This became his most elaborate innovation.

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.

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.

He died on October 10, 1929, and was buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.

Distinctions, Honors, and Accolades

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.

1974. Michigan put a historical marker at the McCoys' former home at 5720 Lincoln Avenue and his gravesite.

1975. Detroit celebrated Elijah McCoy Day by placing a historical marker at the site of his home. The city also named a nearby street for him.

1994. Michigan installed a historical marker at his first workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

2001. McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.

2012. The Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office was opened in Detroit, Michigan.


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' came to mean 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.

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.

With his engineering genius, he fuelled the economy to the next century and beyond. Our means of transportation wouldn’t be where it is today if not for him.

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. 

As in life and business, there is always room for creativity and improvement. 

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