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Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy
May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929
Nationality: Canadian-American
Notable: Engineer

Media

YouTube Video

https://youtu.be/Nf5x0XhGKiw

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, one of Mildred and George McCoy’s 12 children. His parents had both been born into slavery and used the Underground Railroad to escape from Kentucky to freedom in Canada. McCoy’s father served in the British military and received 160 acres of land in compensation.

In 1847, McCoy and his family left Canada for Michigan, where they settled in Detroit. His father established a tobacco business where a young McCoy showed an interest in the company’s tools and machines. McCoy would regularly dismantle and reassemble items to understand how they worked and to devise ways to make them more efficient.

McCoy’s parents arranged an apprenticeship to support his obvious passion and talent for engineering. At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland where he spent the next few years studying mechanical engineering. When McCoy returned to America after completing his training, it was in the years between the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. He settled in Ypsilanti but was unable to find a position as a skilled engineer due to racism.

Despite McCoy’s qualifications companies were only willing to consider him for low-skill jobs and/or manual labor. With no alternatives, McCoy accepted a position with the Michigan Central Railroad as a locomotive fireman and oiler. Trains of that time ran on steam engines that needed to be well-lubricated to prevent overheating. Oiling the engine was a manual process that required trains to make regular stops.

McCoy received his first patent in 1872 for devising an automatic lubricator that pumped oil over an engine’s parts while allowing a train to remain in motion. McCoy’s automated lubricator helped railroad companies operate trains more efficiently by reducing downtime for engine maintenance. The automated lubricator was adapted for machinery and tools in other industries such as mining and construction.

McCoy was promoted to an instructor position where he taught workers how to use his devices and later served as a consultant in the railroad industry. He continuously improved the lubricator’s design and even created new devices. In time, he was awarded 57 patents for his improvements and inventions which included an ironing board and sprinkler. Unfortunately, McCoy didn’t have the necessary capital or investors needed to manufacture the lubricators at scale.

McCoy’s inventions were rightfully attributed to him but they weren’t as financially lucrative as they should have been. For about 40 years the patent rights for his inventions were licensed to his employers or investors for production. And much of the money McCoy earned was used to fund additional research. It was not until 1920 that McCoy founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company and began to produce automated lubricators under a brand he owned.

Elijah McCoy died on October 10, 1929, from dementia and complications from high blood pressure. By the time of his death, he’d lost most of his fortune. McCoy had no children though he’d been married twice. Both of his marriages ended due to the death of his wife. His second wife’s death was the result of a 1922 car accident in which she later died from her injuries and he never fully recovered. Since his death McCoy has been honored with a historical marker outside his workshop, having the regional patent and trademark office in Detroit named after him, and induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Sources

  1. Allman, Esme. 2023. “Elijah McCoy.” The University of Edinburgh. February 6, 2023. https://www.ed.ac.uk/global/uncovered/1800-1859/elijah-mccoy.
  2. Anderson, Erica. 2021. “Elijah McCoy (1843-1929).” Blackpast.Org. February 28, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/mccoy-elijah-1843-1929/.
  3. Bellis, Mary. 2021. “Biography of Elijah McCoy, American Inventor.” ThoughtCo. ThoughtCo. January 24, 2021. https://www.thoughtco.com/elijah-mccoy-profile-1992158.
  4. Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Elijah McCoy Biography.” The Biography.Com Website. A&E; Television Networks. April 1, 2021. https://www.biography.com/inventors/elijah-mccoy.
  5. “How Elijah McCoy Invented ‘The Real Mccoy.’” n.d. National Inventors Hall of Fame. Accessed April 30, 2024. https://www.invent.org/blog/inventors/elijah-mccoy-automatic-lubricator.
  6. “MCCOY, ELIJAH.” n.d. Encyclopedia of Detroit. Detroit Historical Society. Accessed April 30, 2024. https://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/mccoy-elijah.
  7. Ramanathan, Tara. 2023. “Elijah McCoy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. October 21, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elijah-McCoy.

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