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In the 1800s, the United States offered few opportunities for African-American engineers and inventors. But Elijah McCoy did not let racial discrimination stop him. Working in a small machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he received 57 U.S. patents and became one of the most prolific inventors of the nineteenth century.

In defying racial discrimination throughout his life and career, Elijah McCoy followed in the footsteps of his parents, George and Mildred Coins McCoy, who also resisted society's restrictions on African Americans. Both George and Mildred had been born into slavery in Kentucky in the early nineteenth century. George was freed at the age of 21 and went to work in a tobacco shop. But, with Mildred still enslaved, the young couple knew they could never be truly free in the South.

The McCoys made their way north to Michigan via the Underground Railroad and crossed the border into Canada. They received help from Josiah Henson, a fellow fugitive from Kentucky. Although Henson possessed little education, he was a natural leader and a persuasive orator who became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad.

In 1837, George and Mildred found refuge in Colchester Township in Upper Canada--located in present-day Ontario--where a small group of freedom-seekers had already settled. They arrived during the Rebellions of 1837 and 1838 in Canada, during which Canadian rebels fought to overthrow the British colonial government. George enlisted in the Canadian Coloured Corps, a unit of African-American loyalist soldiers who fought against the rebels.

After suffering repeated setbacks, the rebels fled to the United States, and the conflict ended in victory for British Canada. The colonial government gave George 160 acres of farmland as payment for his military service. In a remarkably short time, George and Mildred McCoy had advanced from enslaved people to landowners. They settled down and began raising a family. The couple had 12 children--including Elijah, who was born in Colchester in 1843.

Even as a child, Elijah McCoy showed exceptional mechanical skills. He especially liked to take machines apart and reassemble them. Whenever a piece of equipment broke on the farm, he tried to fix it, and he usually succeeded.

In 1858, the McCoy family sold its Colchester farm and moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan. They leased farmland, grew tobacco, and made cigars. They also became conductors on the Underground Railroad, risking their lives to hide, feed, and transport freedom-seekers. George often ferried the fugitives in a covered wagon to Wyandotte, where they boarded a boat for the trip across the Detroit River to Canada.

Since George and Mildred could see that young Elijah had special talents, they wanted to offer him a solid engineering education, but U.S. colleges accepted few African-American students in the technical fields. The McCoys thus arranged for Elijah to study mechanical engineering in an apprenticeship program in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the age of 15, he went abroad for his training.

After completing his education, McCoy returned to Ypsilanti as a licensed mechanical engineer, but he quickly discovered that U.S. companies would not hire an African-American engineer for even an entry-level job. He found work as an "ash cat"--a fireman who shoveled coal into the firebox of a steam locomotive--on the Michigan Central Railroad.

In addition to shoveling tons of coal on every trip, McCoy was also responsible for oiling the moving parts of the engine and train cars. For that purpose, he had an assistant called a "grease monkey," usually an adolescent boy who was hired because he was agile and could squeeze into spaces too small for an adult male.

Moving parts on a locomotive--such as axles, bearings, and pistons--need regular lubrication. Without a lubricant to reduce friction, those parts can overheat and burn out. Lubrication also combats metal corrosion, a chronic problem in steam engines. Self-activating, continuous-feed lubricating systems were available when McCoy worked for the Michigan Central Railroad, but its locomotives did not use an automated system. Instead, a train came to a complete stop at regular intervals, during which the ash cat and grease monkey manually oiled the engine. Oiling was typically done during a regularly scheduled stop, but the task nevertheless often threw the train off schedule.

McCoy set out to streamline the Michigan Central Railroad's operations by inventing a continuous lubricating device that would work without stopping a train. Like other inventors, he built on the work of his predecessors. Devices known as displacement lubricators had already been patented in Great Britain and the United States. McCoy invented a hydrostatic displacement lubricator, which worked because water is denser than oil.

In McCoy's device, a hollow stem ran vertically through a metal cylinder that included a reservoir to hold oil. Inside the stem was a rod with a piston at the bottom and a valve at the top. Steam from a locomotive engine entered the cylinder and put pressure on the piston, which caused the valve to open. The steam then condensed and forced oil out of the reservoir, and the pressure on the piston drove the oil into channels that carried it to the moving parts in the locomotive.

In 1872, McCoy was issued U.S. Patent No. 129,843 for his lubricating device. Because he lacked the capital to manufacture and market his lubricator, he sold his patent rights to two businessmen in Ypsilanti. The following year, McCoy received a patent for his second lubricator, which was an advanced version of the first. Soon factories, railroads, and ships on the Great Lakes were using his inventions. The Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an office job, which he held until 1882.

During the late nineteenth century, the railroad industry boomed in the United States because railways were the fastest and most reliable form of transportation. To expand shipping capacity, railroads enlarged freight cars and built giant locomotives to pull longer, heavier trains. In order to generate more horsepower and use less coal, those huge locomotives used superheated steam, creating a need for better lubrication. New lubricating systems were devised to mix oil with powdered graphite, which could withstand very high temperatures. In 1915, McCoy patented a graphite lubricator that proved to be very efficient.

While McCoy specialized in lubricating systems, he also invented a variety of products for wider markets. He held patents for scaffolding, tire treads, a lawn sprinkler, rubber heels for shoes, and a folding ironing board. After leaving the Michigan Central Railroad in 1882, he became a consultant to various corporations, including the Detroit Lubricating Company. In 1920, when he was 77 years old, McCoy opened his own manufacturing company. The firm produced and marketed his graphite lubricators, including one that oiled the air brakes on a train.

McCoy had become a widower when his first wife, Ann Elizabeth Stuart, died in 1872. The following year, he married Mary Eleanor Delaney, who was active in community affairs and went on to co-found Detroit's Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898.

In 1922, both Elijah and Mary suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident. While Mary's injuries led to her death the next year, Elijah lived on, though he never fully recovered from the accident. His health steadily declined, and he spent the last year of his life in the Eloise Infirmary, also known as the Michigan State Asylum. When McCoy died at the age of 85 in 1929, his death was attributed to dementia and hypertension. He was buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren.

A number of sources identify McCoy's lubricators as the origin of the phrase "the real McCoy," meaning that something is authentic and not a cheap imitation. Those sources claim that railroad purchasing agents demanded "the real McCoy" because his lubricators were clearly the best.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary claims that the phrase predated Elijah McCoy. As early as 1856, the McKay Distillery in Edinburgh, Scotland, promoted its whiskey as "the real McKay." Lexicographers do not know how the name morphed into McCoy. They have found several variant spellings, including "MacKay," "Macoy," "McKie," "Macky," and "McCoie." Over time, "McCoy" emerged as the standard spelling.

Whatever the origins of the phrase, Elijah McCoy certainly deserved to be remembered as "the real McCoy," since his lubricating systems were used in trains, ships, and factories around the world. The enterprising son of once-enslaved people earned patents in the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Canada. Decades after his death, the city of Detroit named a street "Elijah McCoy Drive." In 2001, he was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 2012, the patent service honored him by naming its Detroit facility the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office.

By J. Anne Funderburg

J. Anne Funderburg writes about American history. She is the author of four books and numerous magazine articles.

Caption: Elijah McCoy, an inventor who spent much of his life in Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Ypsilanti Historical Society Archives.)

Caption: A railway worker oils up a steam locomotive of the Michigan Central Railroad, c. 1905. (Photo courtesy of the Library ofCongress, LC-D4-17223.)

Caption: A Michigan historical marker in Ypsilanti describes McCoy's life, career, and connections to Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Dwight Burdette.)

Caption: McCoy'S1872 patent for an "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines."

Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
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Author:Funderburg, J. Anne
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2019
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