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Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy was the Canadian engineer best known for inventing an automatic lubricating cup for the steam engines that powered trains and ships. He also owned more than 50 patents, including some of today’s more common products such as the folding ironing board and the lawn sprinkler.

McCoy was born in May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to fugitive slaves George and Mildred McCoy. His parents escaped slavery in Kentucky by using the Underground Railroad. McCoy and his 11 siblings were born free. The family returned to the United States and settled in Michigan when McCoy was about 3. As a teenager, McCoy moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, for an apprenticeship and was later certified there as a mechanical engineer.

After returning home to Michigan, McCoy couldn’t find work that would allow him to use his engineer training.

So he worked as an oiler and fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad. The oiler’s job was to keep the train’s engine and its moving parts, such as the axles and bearings, lubricated so the metal on metal wouldn’t heat up and shut down the engine. The fireman’s job was to fuel the train’s steam engine, low-skilled work for a certified engineer. Trains had to stop periodically to be lubricated to avoid overheating.

Recognizing opportunity

McCoy set up shop at home. In his home-based machine shop, he designed improvements to existing products and developed his own ideas, allowing him to use his expertise as an engineer. He recognized how to solve the problems of lubrication with an automatic lubricating cup that kept the engine oiled while the train continued to run, eliminating the need to stop. His design made it possible for trains to keep moving nonstop to their destination, improving efficiency, productivity, and reducing costs.
Booker T. Washington, an educator and a leader in the black community, praised McCoy as having acquired more patents than any other African-American inventor of his day.

McCoy died at age 86 on Oct. 10, 1929, in Detroit.



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