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Black News and News Makers in History: Elijah McCoy

African American news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History recognizes Elijah McCoy this week in Black history.Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada but later became an American citizen.  The date of McCoy's birth is not known; various sources give it as May 2, 1843; March 27, 1843; and May 2, 1844. His parents, George McCoy and the former Mildred Goins, were fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada from Kentucky via the Underground Railroad. 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 was responsible for fueling the steam engine.  He 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 to lubricate its moving parts, the axles and bearings using an oilcan during frequent stops, while it took on water. 

Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. At that time, trains needed to periodically stop and be lubricated, to prevent overheating. Elijah McCoy developed a lubricator for steam engines that did not require the train to stop. His lubricator used steam pressure to pump oil wherever it was needed.

McCoy was issued his first patent - US patent #129,843 - on July 12th, 1872 for his improvement in lubricators for steam engines. McCoy continued to improve upon his design and invented several more improvements. Railroad and shipping lines began using McCoy’s new lubricators and the Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an instructor in the use of his new inventions. Later, Elijah McCoy became a consultant to the railroad industry on patent matters.

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.  They moved to Detroit when he found work there. His wife, Mary, was one of the founders of the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898.

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 the lingering affects of the car accident as well as 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.


Though the noted inventor and engineer was issued many patents for his inventions during his lifetime, his best known invention was a cup that fed lubricating oil to machine bearings through a small bore tube.

The saying the real McCoy, meaning the real thing, what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation,  has been associated with Elijah McCoy's invention of the oil-drip cup, for which he was well known. One theory is that railroad engineers' looking to avoid inferior copies would inquire if a locomotive was fitted with "the real McCoy system".  This was cited in Elijah McCoy's biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

The claim was repeated in a 1985 pamphlet printed by the Empak Publishing Company, which did not explain the origin of the expression.  The attribution has been disputed, and other origin stories exist for the phrase.

The expression was first known to be published in Canada in 1881. In James S. Bond's ‘The Rise and Fall of the "Union Club": or, Boy life in Canada’, 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."

McCoy’s legacy has been carried on:

  • In 1966, an ad for Old Taylor bourbon used a photo of Elijah McCoy and the expression "the real McCoy", ending in this tag line: "But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name."
  • In 2006, Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie wrote a play called The Real McCoy, which portrays McCoy's life, the challenges he faced as an African American, and the development of his inventions. It was first produced in Toronto in 2006. It has also been produced in the United States, such as in Saint Louis, Missouri in 2011, performed by the Black Rep Theatre.
  • In 1974, the state of Michigan put an historical marker (P25170) at the McCoys' former home at 5720 Lincoln Avenue and at his gravesite.In 1975, Detroit celebrated Elijah McCoy Day, and officials placed a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a nearby street for him.
  • In 1994, Michigan installed a historical marker (S0642) at his first workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
  • In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio.
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow offered an amendment to the Patent Reform Act of 2011 to name the first satellite office of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, scheduled to open in Detroit, Michigan in 2011, the "Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office.”

Compiled from http://inventors.about.com/od/mstartinventors/a/Elijah_McCoy.htm and http://www.africawithin.com/bios/elijah_mccoy.htm and Wikipedia.

 
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