The improbable life story of one of Detroit’s most notable inventors, Elijah J. McCoy, seems as unbelievable as most Hollywood movie scripts.
A Black man, the son of American slaves, he was born in Canada, educated in Scotland, and moved to Ypsilanti in 1866, where racial discrimination forced him to take an unskilled railroad job.
That experience inspired him to invent a mechanical part for lubricating railroad steam engines, revolutionizing train travel worldwide while making millions of dollars for railroad companies. McCoy would go on to file 72 patents for various inventions including a folding ironing board, a lawn water sprinkler, and rubber heels for shoes.
Despite the enormous impact his lubricating innovation had on the operation of steam engines, McCoy never shared in the fortune it made for the railroads and steam-powered transatlantic shipping companies and factories. His achievements have faded into history, but the idiom “the real McCoy,” coined for his automatic lubricator invention, has long been part of the American lexicon.
McCoy’s parents, George McCoy and Mildred Goins, fled their lives as slaves in Kentucky and escaped to Canada through the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and routes from the South through Detroit and across the nation’s northern border.
The couple arrived in Ontario just as a rebellion broke out in 1837 pitting native Canadians against British rule in the country. George McCoy enlisted with the British military, which successfully put down the rebellion. Extending a measure of goodwill, the Canadian government awarded him 160 acres of farmland in Colchester, Ontario, near the shores of Lake Erie in southwest Ontario. Here, he and his wife raised 12 children, including Elijah, who was born in 1844.
As a child, young Elijah was fascinated by machines and mechanical devices. He would frequently take them apart and tinker with them, observing how they worked, before reassembling them. Realizing their son had an aptitude for mechanics, his parents shipped him off at age 15 to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he finished his schooling as a master mechanic and was certified as a mechanical engineer.
In 1866, at age 22, McCoy returned to the U.S., became an American citizen, and settled in Ypsilanti. Despite his quality education, as a young Black man in America after the Civil War, McCoy couldn’t get an engineering job.
Instead, he signed on with the Michigan Central Railroad as a locomotive fireman and oiler, one of the most physically challenging jobs on a train. A fireman was expected to shovel two tons of coal each hour into the firebox of the locomotive, while an oiler walked the length of the train with an oil can during its frequent water fill-up stops, squirting oil on its axles, bearings, and other moving parts as well as lubricating the locomotive.
Because the engines were powered by steam, the pressure propelled the train but also pushed oil away from the moving parts of the engine, necessitating frequent stops to shut off the engine to keep it lubricated. McCoy soon figured out how to harness the steam to constantly pump oil where it was needed most.
At the machine shop in his home in Ypsilanti, McCoy went to work on his idea. He designed a container he filled with oil, which he named a lubricating cup. Inside the cup was a steam-driven piston that would push a steady stream of oil to multiple operating parts at once.
On July 23, 1872, McCoy received a patent for his device. Soon afterward, he demonstrated it to his bosses at Michigan Central Railroad, received their support, and installed the lubricator on one of their locomotives. The device worked perfectly and quickly became standard equipment on all the railroad’s locomotives.
The invention was a boon in efficiency, as it meant trains didn’t have to stop frequently for oil, reducing travel time for passengers and cargo. What’s more, the engines lasted longer and needed less maintenance, saving the rail companies even more money. The device also was adopted on steam engines used to power boats, ocean liners, and in factories.
Very little of the monetary windfall the companies enjoyed wound up with McCoy. He didn’t have the money, nor could he raise the capital to mass-produce his invention, so he was forced to sell it to investors for a modest amount. He continued to work for Michigan Central for 10 more years before he could afford to leave the railroad, move to Detroit, and continue working on inventions.
From there, he became a consultant to industry, including for the Detroit Lubricator Co. More than a decade after his lubricator invention, McCoy took on another problem for steam engines. Because of increasing passenger and freight demands, railroad engineers developed much larger and more powerful locomotives that generated added horsepower.
In a bid to reduce the use of coal per mile, engineers came up with the concept of superheated steam to boost engine efficiency; it was an early forerunner of today’s turbo chargers. But the development created a new problem.
Normal-grade oil couldn’t fully protect engine cylinders, leading to a mixture of soft, greasy, and powdered graphite that could withstand high temperatures. The mixture, however, was prone to clog up an engine.
In April 1915, McCoy applied for a patent for his improved Locomotive Lubricator, which prevented graphite from clogging.
Robert C. Hayden, author of “Eight Black American Inventors,” quoted a railroad superintendent praising the McCoy Graphite Lubricator: “There is a decided advantage in better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings, and as a well lubricated engine is more economical in the use of fuel, there is unquestionably a saving in fuel.”
McCoy’s lubricators were so much in demand throughout the steam engine era that most purchasing agents insisted on buying “the real McCoy.” Some archivists believe the description was adopted into general conversation for the “real thing.” Others believe it referred to a brand of whiskey.
In Scotland, fans of Mackay Scotch whiskey in the 1880s referred to their favorite drink as the “clear Mackay” and, during Prohibition, American furtive drinkers were known to ask for “the real Mackay.”
In his personal life, McCoy was married twice. His first wife was 25 when she died after four years of marriage. His childless second marriage lasted 50 years.
In 1920, the 77-year-old McCoy found investors to set up Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Co. in Detroit to manufacture and sell his graphite lubricators.
Shortly afterward, he and his wife, Mary, were involved in a traffic acciden; she died as a result of her injuries in 1923. McCoy’s injuries caused his health to deteriorate, and he was hospitalized with dementia before he died at age 85 on Oct. 10, 1929.
To help keep his memory alive, Michigan Historic Society markers were placed in front of his former home-workshop on Michigan Avenue in Ypsilanti, and at his Detroit home at the intersection of Lincoln Street and Elijah McCoy Drive near Wayne State University.
In 2001, he was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va. Eleven years later, the country’s first satellite trademark office, located in Detroit, was named the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office, ensuring the inventor’s legacy will be memorialized for years to come.