ELIJAH J. MCCOY Biography - Pioneers, Explorers & inventors


Biography » pioneers explorers inventors » elijah j mccoy


Elijah McCoy (1843"-1929) made important contributions to the design of railroad   
locomotives after the Civil War. He kept pace with the progress of locomotive       
design, devising new lubricating systems that served the steam engines of the       
early twentieth century. These were demanding indeed, for they operated at high     
temperatures and pressures.                                                         
The date of McCoy's birth is not known; various sources give it as March 27,       
1843; May 2, 1843; and May 2, 1844. His parents, George McCoy and the former       
Mildred Goins, were fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada from Kentucky. At     
the time, Canada was part of the British Empire, which had abolished slavery in     
1833. When the Canadian leader, Louis Riel, launched a rebellion in 1837, the       
British government used troops to defeat the rebels. George McCoy enlisted with     
the British force. In return for his loyal service, he received 160 acres of       
farmland near Colchester, Ontario. Here, he raised a family of 12 children.         
His father's ties to Britain proved useful as young McCoy pursued his education.   
As a boy, he was fascinated with tools and machines. At the age of 16, he           
traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve an apprenticeship in mechanical           
engineering. In Edinburgh, McCoy won the credentials of a master mechanic and       
engineer. Following the Civil War, the McCoys returned to the United States and     
settled near Ypsilanti, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Young Elijah sought work     
as an engineer, but met with defeat due to racial prejudice. Nevertheless, he       
obtained a job as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1870.     
This was a responsible position, for service as a fireman was a customary           
prelude to promotion to the post of locomotive driver. Work as a fireman was a     
far cry from engineering, and it proved to be a physically demanding job. As a     
fireman, McCoy had to shovel coal into the firebox of his locomotive, at the       
rate of two tons per hour. He also had to walk around the locomotive and           
lubricate its moving parts using an oilcan during frequent stops, while it took     
on water.                                                                           
Pioneer in Automatic Lubrication                                                   
Locomotives were heavy, and subjected their moving parts to considerable wear.     
Lubrication was essential for these parts--many of which were applied to           
railroad axles. These axles carried the full weight of locomotives and railroad     
cars, and were particularly subject to wear. But engineers had arranged for them   
to rotate within oil-filled chambers. The rotation of the axle carried oil into     
its bearing, and the oiled bearing allowed the axle to turn freely while           
reducing wear to a minimum. However, the direct use of oil-filled chambers did     
not apply to a locomotive's steam engine, which provided its power. Many parts     
of this engine operated under the pressure of steam, which acted to push oil       
away from the moving parts. This made it necessary to stop the engine when         
oiling it. McCoy saw that he could keep the engine running by using steam           
pressure to pump the oil where it was needed.                                       
Working in a home-built machine shop in Ypsilanti, McCoy devised an invention       
that became known as the lubricating cup. 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 evin than could be achieved by the old method of using an         
oilcan 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. The technical demands     
of railroads soon provided him 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.                 
The author Robert C. Hayden, in his book Eight Black American Inventors, quoted     
an article in the Engineer's Journal: "There is no denying the fact that our       
present experience in lubricating the cylinders of engines using superheated       
steam is anything but satisfactory ... If the oil feed was made regular so the     
steam would distribute it over the bearing surface of cylinder while the engine     
was working, these bearing surfaces would be better protected than is now           
otherwise possible."                                                               
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 this invention would permit the use of graphite "without danger of     
Hayden cites a letter from a railroad superintendent: "We have found the McCoy     
Graphite Lubricator to be of considerable assistance in lubrication of             
locomotives equipped with superheaters.... There is a decided advantage in         
better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings, and as a       
well lubricated engine is more economical in the use of fuel, there is             
unquestionably a saving in fuel."                                                   
In reviewing the life of this inventor, 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 of these authors 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.                 
In 1868, McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart; she died in 1872, at the age of 25.   
A year later, he married Mary Eleanora Delaney. This marriage lasted half a         
century, but did not produce children.                                             
In 1920, at the age of 77, McCoy joined with investors and founded the Elijah       
McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, serving as vice-president. The firm         
manufactured and sold his graphite lubricators, including an advanced version       
that also lubricated a railroad train's air brakes. Soon afterward, he and his     
wife, Mary, were involved in a traffic accident. Mary received injuries from       
which she never fully recovered, and which hastened her death. She died in 1923.   
For McCoy, the end now approached as well. His health deteriorated and, in 1928,   
he entered an infirmary. Suffering from hypertension and senile dementia, McCoy     
died on October 10, 1929 in Eloise, Michigan.                                       
McCoy was remembered in Detroit long after his death. In 1975, the city             
celebrated Elijah McCoy Day, as officials placed a historic marker at the site     
of his home. The city also named a street for him. These posthumous honors were     
modest, but they came a century after his invention of the lubricating cup, and     
demonstrated his enduring legacy.