Although the name Elijah McCoy may be a mystery to many people, the scale of his ingenuity and the quality of his inventions have created a level of distinction which bears his name.Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844. His mother and father were George and Emillia McCoy, former slaves from Kentucky who ran away by using the Underground Railroad. George joined the Canadian Army, fighting in the Rebel War and then raised his family as free Canadian residents on a 160 acre homestead.
At an early age, Elijah demonstrated a mechanical interest, often taking items apart and putting them back together again. Recognizing his keen skills, George and Emillia saved enough money to send Elijah to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he could study mechanical engineering. Subsequent to finishing his studies as a “master mechanic and engineer,” he came back to the United States which had just seen the end of the Civil War – and the beginning of the “Emancipation Proclamation.”
Elijah relocated to Ypsilanti, Michigan but was incapable of finding work as an engineer. He was thus pressed to accept a position as a fireman\oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad. As a fireman, McCoy was trusted with shoveling coal onto fires that would help to give off steam that motorized the locomotive. As an oilman, Elijah was responsible for making sure that the train was well oiled. After a few miles, the train would be required to halt and he would have to go for a walk at the side of the train applying oil to the axles and bearings.
In an attempt to boost efficiency and overcome the repeated halting needed for lubrication of the train, McCoy determined to come up with a method of automating the task. In 1872 he designed a “lubricating cup” that could routinely drip oil when and where needed. He received a patent for the piece of equipment later that year. The “lubricating cup” met with substantial success and requests for it came in from railroad businesses all over the country. Other inventors made an effort to sell their own models of the gadget but most firms wanted the authentic device, asking for “the Real McCoy.”
In 1868, Elijah married Ann Elizabeth Stewart. Regrettably, Elizabeth died just four years later. In 1873, McCoy got married again, this time his new bride was Mary Eleanor Delaney and the pair would eventually settle into Detroit, Michigan together for the next 50 years.
McCoy continued to be intrigued in continuing to improve his technology and to develop more. He thus ended up selling some percentage of rights to his patent to finance developing a workshop. He made ongoing improvements to the “lubricating cup.” The patent application identified it as a device which “provides 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.” The gadget would be altered and modified in order to apply it to different types of machinery. Variations of the cup would soon be put to use in steam engines, naval vessels, oil-drilling rigs, mining products, in factories and on construction sites.
In 1916, McCoy built the graphite lubricator which allowed new superheater trains and devices to be oiled. In 1920, Elijah started the “Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.” With his new business, he upgraded and sold the graphite lubricator along with other inventions which came to him out of necessity. He formulated and patented a movable ironing board after his wife expressed a need for an simpler way of ironing clothes. When he preferred an easier and faster way of sprinkling his yard, he designed and patented the lawn sprinkler.
In 1922, Elijah and Mary were involved in an automobile accident and the two sustained severe injuries. Mary would die from the injuries and Elijah’s health suffered for numerous years until he passed away in 1929. McCoy left behind a legacy of excellent inventions that would benefit the world for another century and his name would come to stand for superior workmanship – the Real McCoy!