In honor of Black History Month, The Macomb Group would like to shine the spotlight on a black American with strong ties to Michigan and Detroit who contributed to the industrial revolution. Elijah McCoy was an inventor who held 57 patents and was a distinguished mechanical engineer.
McCoy’s parents escaped slavery in Kentucky through the Underground Railroad to Ontario, Canada where he was born in 1844. Growing up, McCoy became interested in mechanical devices and at 15 his parents sent him to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh where he became a certified mechanical engineer.
Upon his return, at the age of 22, he moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan but had difficulty finding a job, despite his qualifications, due to racial prejudice. Instead, he accepted a position as a fireman and oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. His job included oiling the axles, bearings and other moving parts of the train, when it was stopped, and to shovel coal into the firebox of the cab.
It was while working for the railroad that McCoy began to study the inefficiencies in the existing system of oiling axles. As a result, he developed a lubricating cup that automatically and evenly distributed oil over the train’s moving parts while in motion. The lubricating oil cup was patented in 1872. His invention allowed trains to run continuously for long periods of time without having to stop for maintenance which enabled them to run faster and be more profitable. By 1900, the oil cup was in use on almost all railroads in North America. McCoy continued to make improvements on his design and soon, long distance trains, transatlantic ships and factory machines were all using his lubricating invention.
After settling in Detroit, Michigan, McCoy worked as a mechanical consultant to many engineering firms and even established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, in 1920. He also invented the portable ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, enhanced rubber heels for shoes and a graphite lubricator, allowing superheated machinery to be oiled. Booker T. Washington cited McCoy as having more patents than any other black American inventor of his time. McCoy passed away in 1929 at the age of 85 in Detroit, Michigan. He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
McCoy has been honored for his inventions in numerous ways. In 1974, the State of Michigan put a historical marker in front of his former home on Lincoln Street and a year later the city of Detroit named a street in his honor. In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventor Hall of Fame and in 2012, the first satellite office of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in Detroit was opened and named the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark office.
His legacy and reputation have stood the test of time. It’s said that his inventions were always associated with quality and superior functionality and that people began using the phrase “the real McCoy” to refer to any genuine quality product.