Elijah McCoy Biography (1843-1929)


The prototype "real McCoy," Elijah McCoy patented over fifty inventions, mostrelating to lubrication of locomotives and earned the name "father of lubrication. " Born in Canada in 1843, McCoy was the third of twelve children of George and Mildred Goins McCoy, fugitive slaves who escaped bondage on a Kentucky plantation via the underground railroad. His father was a soldier who sacrificed to give him a better life. In 1859, after Elijah completed the local grammar school, his parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he expandedhis knack for tinkering into a degree in mechanical engineering. He returnedto Ypsilanti, Michigan, yet found no jobs for black engineers, regardless oftheir expertise. He settled for a lowly position with the Michigan Central Railroad as coal-stoker and oiler.

Whiling away time, McCoy devised a method by which trains could lubricate themselves. At the age of twenty-six, he sold half interest in his patents to finance the McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, where he contrived an automatic lubricator, a metal or glass drip cup which released a trickle of lubricant, an innovation which he patented two years later. The mechanism proved valuable to the industry because it allowed lubrication to take place on slides, valves, pumps, brakes, levers, and cylinders while an engine was in motion,thereby silencing noisy parts, stopping wasteful friction, and avoiding lossof time and money from idle machinery. Other innovations made lubrication cleaner, less wasteful, and applicable to all weights of lubricants, includinggraphite. These lubricating dispensers, widely used on ocean liners, steamships, locomotives, and factory engines, came to be called the "real McCoy," a term that means worthy or genuine.

Not satisfied with his first creation, McCoy used the proceeds from his firstpatent to develop a sophisticated self-lubricator containing a stopcock, which times the application of oil to metal parts. Later modifications netted him over fifty patents for the same concept and for steam and air brakes for locomotives. He also branched out with the invention of the lawn sprinkler, vehicle tire, buggy top support, scaffold support, tire treads, and ironing table and began lecturing and consulting for the Michigan Central Railroad and other mechanical engineering firms.

Because of his race, McCoy earned little from an industry that required extensive capital. He was often the victim of ostracism particularly when the party inviting him to speak, conduct seminars, or consult discovered his color and rejected him at the door. Others cancelled orders for lubricating devices made and distributed by a black man. Focusing much of his time on family and volunteer work with troubled Detroit youth, McCoy found contentment in settinga worthy example of hard work and high ideals. An impoverished widower, hishealth failed in 1926, and he lived for a time in a convalescent home in Eloise, Michigan. McCoy died on October 10, 1929 of hypertension and resultant senile dementia and was buried in Detroit.

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