On May 2, 1844, Elijah McCoy was born in the town of Colchester, which is located in the province of Ontario in Canada. Both of his parents, George and Mildred McCoy, were born into slavery and eventually became freedom searchers, making their way from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In recognition of his service to the British armed services, George McCoy was given a prize of 160 acres of property in exchange for his enlistment. Elijah was three years old when his family moved back to the United States and made their home in the city of Detroit in the state of Michigan. After some time, the family uprooted and moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan, where George started a tobacco business. Elijah was the eleventh and final child in his family. As a kid, he delighted in tinkering with various tools and machinery and trying out a variety of approaches to mending and enhancing their functionality.
At the age of 15, McCoy embarked on a journey that would take him to Edinburgh, Scotland, to begin his apprenticeship in the field of mechanical engineering. After obtaining his certification, he went back to his home state of Michigan in order to look for work in his industry. However, McCoy, like other African Americans living in the United States at the time, was exposed to racial discrimination, which prevented him from finding a position that was commensurate with the amount of education he had obtained. He was only able to secure employment with the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman for locomotives and an oiler. On a train, the fireman was responsible for refueling the steam engine and maintaining the oiler, which greased the moving elements of the engine as well as the train’s axles and bearings. In addition, the firemen was responsible for ensuring the train’s safety.
Because of his extensive expertise, McCoy was able to diagnose and fix problems with the engine’s lubrication as well as its overheating. In order to prevent the trains from overheating, regular stops and lubrication were required of them back then. McCoy was the one who came up with the idea for a lubricator for steam engines that did not require the train to halt. Through the use of steam pressure, his automated lubricator delivered oil precisely where it was required. In 1872, McCoy was granted his first patent for this innovation, which was the first of many patents he would acquire for his numerous improvements to steam engine lubricators over the years. These technological breakthroughs made improvements to public transportation by enabling trains to travel further distances without having to make stops for maintenance and re-oiling.
Not only did McCoy’s innovation result in improvements to railway systems, but it was also incorporated into oil-drilling and mining equipment, as well as tools used in building and manufacturing. According to the patent for the invention, the device “provided for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving components of a machine in order to maintain it lubricated correctly and continually and so do away with the requirement of shutting down the machine regularly.” Because of this, the lubricator was able to improve its performance in a variety of contexts.
In the year 1868, Elijah McCoy wed Ann Elizabeth Stewart, but she only lived for another four years before passing away. After another year had passed, McCoy tied the knot with his second wife, Mary Eleanora Delaney. The couple was childless and did not adopt any children.
McCoy never stopped refining his automated lubricator concept and coming up with new ideas for different kinds of devices. After railroads and shipping lines started using McCoy’s novel lubricants, the Michigan Central Railroad moved him to the post of teacher in the usage of his new innovations and put him in charge of teaching others how to use them. After that, McCoy had a career in the railroad sector working as a patent consultant. McCoy was granted patents for a number of his other innovations, including an ironing board and a lawn sprayer, all of which were devised by him to lessen the amount of labor that was required for him to complete his domestic responsibilities.
In 1922, both McCoy and his wife Mary were passengers in a vehicle that was involved in an accident. Mary passed away as a consequence of the injuries she sustained, and McCoy endured serious health problems for the rest of his life, which made it more difficult for him to fulfill his professional commitments.
“The Real McCoy” (The Original)
The phrase “the genuine McCoy” is commonly used among people who speak English and it refers to “the actual thing” as opposed to a fake or a duplicate of a lower quality. Nobody really knows where it came from. Some academics are of the opinion that it originates from the Scottish term “the genuine McKay,” which was initially used in a poem written in the year 1856. Some people think that train engineers were the ones who first used the phrase while they were searching for “the real McCoy system,” which refers to a lubricator that has McCoy’s automated drip cup rather than a cheap counterfeit. Regardless of where the phrase came from in the beginning, it has always been connected to McCoy. In 2006, Andrew Moodie penned a play titled “The Real McCoy,” which was based on the biography of the inventor.
Instead of licensing his ideas to already established businesses, Elijah McCoy decided to start his own manufacturing firm in 1920 and call it the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. McCoy wanted to make his own goods (many of the products he designed did not feature his name). Unfortunately, in his latter years, McCoy had a breakdown on all fronts—financially, mentally, and physically—which led to his admission to the hospital. On October 10, 1929, after spending the previous year at the Eloise Infirmary in Michigan, he passed away from senile dementia brought on severe hypertension. McCoy was put to rest in the Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan after his passing.
The inventiveness of McCoy as well as his achievements won him a lot of admiration, particularly in the Black community. Booker T. Washington acknowledged McCoy in his work “Story of the Negro” as the African-American inventor who had the most patents in the United States. In 2001, McCoy was honored by being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His former studio in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has been memorialized with a historical marker, and the Midwest Regional United States Patent and Trademark Office in Detroit is now known as the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office.