Elijah J. McCoy was a Canadian-born inventor and engineer of African American descent who was notable for his 57 US patents, most having to do with the lubrication of steam engines. Born free in Canada, he came to the United States as a young child when his family returned in 1847, becoming a U.S. resident and citizen.
Elijah McCoy was born free in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred (Goins) McCoy. At the time, they were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via helpers through the Underground Railroad. George and Mildred arrived in Colchester Township, Essex, Ontario Canada in 1837 via Detroit. Elijah McCoy had 11 siblings. Ten of the children were born in Canada from Alfred (1839) to William (1859). Based on 1860 Tax Assessment Rolls, land deeds of sale, and the 1870 USA Census it can be determined the George McCoy family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1859–60.
Elijah McCoy was educated in black schools of Colchester Township due to the 1850 Common Schools act which segregated the Upper Canadian schools in 1850. At age 15, in 1859, Elijah McCoy was sent to Edinburgh, Scotland for an apprenticeship and study. After some years, he was certified in Scotland as a mechanical engineer. By the time he returned, the George McCoy family had established themselves on the farm of John and Maryann Starkweather in Ypsilanti. George used his skills as a tobacconist to establish a tobacco and cigar business.
When Elijah McCoy arrived in Michigan, he 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, patenting it in 1872 as “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 in 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 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, when he formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce them.
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”
This popular expression, typically meaning the real thing, has been possibly attributed to 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 bourbon whiskey: “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 and while it has undoubtedly been applied as an epithet to many other McCoys, its association with Elijah has become iconic and remains topical.
The 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 (1881), 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.”
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 (died 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 85, after suffering injuries from a car accident seven years earlier in which his wife Mary died. He is buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.