Elijah J. McCoy was an Afro-Canadian inventor famous for his many U.S. Patents and railroad innovations. Born in 1843 to fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada from Kentucky, Elijah McCoy was a member of the Canadian British forces who earned 160 acres from the Canadian government as payment for service to his country.
After his service duty was complete, McCoy traveled to Scotland to study engineering in Edinburgh. Upon returning to his native Canada, McCoy found work as a firemen and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. In his home-based machine shop, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator cup for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and boats. It relied on a piston set within an oil-filled container. Steam pressure pushed on the piston and thereby drove the oil into channels that carried it to the engine’s operating parts.
McCoy received a United States patent for this device on June 23, 1872. He took his invention to officials of the Michigan Central Railroad and received their support. Installed on operating locomotives, it provided lubrication that was more regular and even than could be achieved by the old method of using an oil can during intermittent stops. This proved to be quite useful, for locomotives lasted longer and needed less maintenance. McCoy’s lubricating cup proved adaptable to other types of steam engines, which were used in factories and at sea. Versions of this cup became standard components on many types of heavy machinery, entering service on railways of the West, on Great Lakes steamships, and even on transatlantic liners.
McCoy left the Michigan Central in 1882 and moved to Detroit, where he devoted a great deal of time to his inventions. He also worked as an industrial consultant, assisting the Detroit Lubricator Company and other firms. Not surprisingly, the technical demands of railroads soon provided McCoy with further challenges. With the increase of industry and passenger travel, railroad companies needed larger locomotives. James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad, introduced monsters that were up to four times larger than their predecessors, along with large-capacity freight cars. Such locomotives burned coal in large amounts, and demanded high horsepower, while using less coal. The solution lay in the use of superheated steam, with high temperature and pressure. Superheating boosted the engines’ efficiency, allowing a locomotive to get more miles per ton of coal. It also brought new problems in lubrication.
Rather than use oil alone as a lubricant, designers preferred to mix the oil with powdered graphite, a form of carbon. Powdered graphite is soft and greasy, and easily withstands high temperatures. However, because it is a powder rather than a liquid, it can clog an engine. In April 1915, McCoy received a patent for what he called a “Locomotive Lubricator.” Within his patent application, he claimed that his invention would permit the use of graphite “without danger of clogging.” The McCoy Graphite Lubricator was noted by those in the railroad industry be of considerable assistance in lubrication of locomotives equipped with superheaters and provided a decided advantage in better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings. The McCoy Lubricator also proved more economical in the use of fuel.
In reviewing the life of this Elijah McCoy, writers and essayists often note that railroad purchasing agents commonly insisted on buying “the real McCoy.” Other inventors were offering lubricators that competed with those of McCoy, but these agents would accept no substitutes. Many historians assert that the phrase “real McCoy” passed out of the specialized world of railroad engineering and entered general usage, where it came to mean “the genuine article.” While McCoy’s inventions made millions of dollars, little of this money reached his pockets. Lacking the capital with which to build his lubricators in large numbers, he sold many of his patent rights to well-heeled investors. In return, he was given only the modest sums that allowed him to continue his work. McCoy received at least 72 patents during his lifetime, most of which dealt with lubricating devices, but retained ownership of only a few of them.
Widowed twice, McCoy’s health deteriorated and, in 1928, he entered an infirmary. Suffering from hypertension and senile dementia, McCoy died on October 10, 1929 in Eloise, Michigan.