The popular phrase “the real McCoy” has been tied to Canadian-American inventor and engineer Elijah McCoy and one of his many innovative inventions in the steam engine industry. While the expression has been debated endlessly by scholars, what remains is McCoy’s amazing path to prominence — all sparked by a risky sacrifice made by his parents during slavery times. NewsOne celebrates the life of Elijah McCoy, who was born on this day in 1844.
McCoy was born free in Ontario, Canada, to parents George and Mildred, slaves who escaped Kentucky and fled to the Far North by way of the Underground Railroad. One of 12 children, McCoy’s family settled back in the States in 1847 in Michigan. As a teenager, McCoy was trained in Scotland as an apprentice engineer but was unable to land coveted jobs due to racism. Out of necessity, McCoy worked for the Michigan Central Railroad as an oiler and fireman.
McCoy’s time on the railroad gave him the inspiration for his earlier inventions.
After observing how train axles were oiled, he invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil more efficiently and allowed trains to run longer without manual assistance. Gaining the first of his 57 patents for the cup, McCoy tweaked and worked on lubricating systems almost exclusively. He also branched out with designs for ironing boards, lawn sprinklers, and other machines.
Without the financial backing to produce his inventions, McCoy sold or assigned his patent rights to others. Lubricators bearing McCoy’s name would appear until 1920, toward the end of his fantastic career.
McCoy would create the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his lubricating machines and operated the company until his passing.
Historians often ignore McCoy’s significant contributions, saying that self-lubricating machines such as his inventions were already in place. While that fact has been proven accurate, there is no discounting the fact McCoy’s cup was an improvement upon the older designs.
And based on his high number of patents — 50 focused on lubrication — he was one of the most-prolific Black inventors of the early 20th Century.