Elijah J. McCoy (May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929) was a Canadian-American inventor and engineer, who was notable for his 57 U.S. patents, most to do with lubrication of steam engines. Born free in Canada, he returned as a five-year-old with his family to the United States in 1847, where he lived for the rest of his life and became a US citizen.
Elijah J. McCoy was born free in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred (Goins) McCoy, who were black. They were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via helpers through the Underground Railroad. In 1847, the family returned to the US, settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. He had eleven siblings.
At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland for an apprenticeship and study. After some years, he was certified in Scotland as a mechanical engineer. After his return, he rejoined his family.
In Michigan, McCoy could find work only as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan McCoy also did more highly skilled work, such as developing improvements and inventions. He invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” (U.S. Patent 129,843).
Similar automatic oilers had been patented previously; one is the displacement lubricator, which had already attained widespread use and whose technological descendants continued to be widely used into the 20th century. Lubricators were a boon for railroads, as they enabled trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.
McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones; 50 of his patents dealt with lubricating systems. After the turn of the century, he attracted notice among his black contemporaries. Booker T. Washington in Story of the Negro (1909) recognized him as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This creativity gave McCoy an honored status in the black community that has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents. Most of these were related to lubrication, but others also included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career. He formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his works.
Historians have not agreed on the importance of McCoy’s contribution to the field of lubrication. He is credited in some biographical sketches with revolutionizing the railroad or machine industries with his devices. Early twentieth-century lubrication literature barely mentions him; for example, his name is absent from E. L. Ahrons‘ Lubrication of Locomotives (1922), which does identify several other early pioneers and companies of the field.
Regarding the phrase “The real McCoy”
The popular expression, “The real McCoy“, was first published in Canada in 1881, but the expression, “The Real McKay”, can be traced to Scottish advertising in 1856. In James S. Bond’s The Rise and Fall of the “Union Club”: or, Boy Life in Canada, a character says, “By jingo! yes; so it will be. It’s the ‘real McCoy,’ as Jim Hicks says. Nobody but a devil can find us there.”
This expression, typically used to mean the real thing, has been associated with Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name, and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”. This theory is mentioned in Elijah McCoy’s biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. It can be traced to the December 1966 issue of Ebony in an advertisement for Old Taylor: “But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name.” A 1985 pamphlet printed by the Empak Publishing Company also notes the phrase’s origin but does not elaborate. Other possibilities for its origin have been proposed.
Marriage and family
McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart in 1868; she died four years later.
He married for the second time in 1873 to Mary Eleanor Delaney. The couple moved to Detroit when McCoy found work there. Mary McCoy (b. – d. 1922) helped found the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898.
Elijah McCoy died in the Eloise Infirmary in Nankin Township, now Westland, Michigan, on October 10, 1929, at the age of 86, after suffering injuries from a car accident seven years earlier in which his wife Mary had died. He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
In popular culture
- 1966, an ad for Old Taylor bourbon cited Elijah McCoy with a photo and the expression “the real McCoy”, ending with the tag line, “But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name.”
- 2006, Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie’s The Real McCoy portrayed McCoy’s life, the challenges he faced as an African American, and the development of his inventions. It was first produced in Toronto and has also been produced in the United States, for example in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 2011, where it was performed by the Black Rep Theatre.
- In her novel Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman describes a racial dystopia in which the roles of black and white people are reversed; Elijah McCoy is among the black scientists, inventors, and pioneers mentioned in a history class that Blackman “never learned about in school”.
- 1974, the state of Michigan put an historical marker (P25170) at the McCoys’ former home at 5720 Lincoln Avenue and at his gravesite.
- 1975, Detroit celebrated Elijah McCoy Day by placing a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a nearby street for him.
- 1994, Michigan installed a historical marker (S0642) at his first workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
- 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.
- 2011, Senator Debbie Stabenow offered an amendment to the Patent Reform Act of 2011 to name the first satellite office of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, which opened in Detroit, Michigan, on July 13, 2012, as the “Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office”.
- Haber, Louis (2007). Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Louis Haber Books. ISBN 0-15-208566-1. ISBN 978-0-15-208566-7.
- Haskins, James (1991). Outward Dreams: Black Inventors and Their Inventions. New York: Walker. ISBN 978-0-8027-6993-0.
- Hayden, Robert C. (1997). Nine Black American Inventors. 21st Century. p. 171. ISBN 0-8050-2133-7. ISBN 978-0-8050-2133-2
- Klein, Aaron E. (October 1971). The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-00641-1. ISBN 978-0-385-00641-5
- Moodie, Andrew (2006). The real McCoy. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press. ISBN 978-0-88754-902-1.
- Sullivan, Otha; Haskins, James (April 21, 1998). Black Stars: African American Inventors. Jossey-Bass. ISBN 0-471-14804-0. ISBN 978-0-471-14804-3
- Towle, Wendy; Wil, Clay (Illustrator) (1993). The Real McCoy: The Life of an African American Inventor. A Blue Ribbon Book (Scholastic). ISBN 0-590-46134-6.
- “Elijah McCoy Picture”. Argot Language Center.
- Sources give his birthdate as May 2, 1843; May 2, 1844; or less commonly March 27, 1843.
- “The not-so-real McCoy”. Brinkster. Retrieved February 3, 2011. disputes “Real McCoy” story
- Bond, James S. The rise and fall of the “Union club”: or, Boy life in Canada. Yorkville, Ontario. p. 1
- “Elijah McCoy, Inventor of the Week”. Lemelson–MITProgram. May 1996. Retrieved August 18, 2011.
- Quinion, Michael. “The Real McCoy”. World Wide Words.
- Casselman, William Gordon (2006). “The Real McCoy”. Bill Casselman’s Canadian Word of the Day. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
- “Elijah McCoy, inventor profile”. National Inventors Hall of Fame.
- Ebony, December 1966. p. 157.
- Bennetta, William J. “Did Somebody Say McTrash?”. The Textbook League.
- Baulch, Vivian M. (1995-11-26). “How Detroit got its first black hospital”. The Detroit News.[dead link]
- “Elijah McCoy”. Find a Grave.
- Ebony, December 1966. p. 157