Elijah McCoy had all the chances to live a life unnoticed.
Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1844 to parents who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad, McCoy grew up with 11 siblings on a 160-acre farm. The odds of earning an engineering degree and ultimately becoming a celebrated inventor were long.
And, even when he was on the cusp of succeeding, McCoy was relegated to a station of obscurity.
Still, despite the meager start and setbacks he would later face, McCoy’s lifetime of accomplishments is honored today, and not just for the prolific portfolio of inventions he developed. McCoy’s success was rooted in his genius and mastery of mechanics. His perseverance in the face of limited opportunities helped create his legend as “the real McCoy.”
Early in life, McCoy showed an interest in taking apart and reassembling items. But those mechanical abilities seemed destined to be confined to life on a farm. Wanting more for their gifted son, McCoy’s parents saved enough to send him to Scotland’s fabled University of Edinburgh. He spent five years there, ultimately graduating as a master mechanic and engineer.
Despite his academic qualifications, McCoy found there were few opportunities for African-American engineers when he traveled to the United States after his schooling. Unable to land an engineering job, he was forced to take a position as a fireman and oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad.
“As a fireman, McCoy was responsible for shoveling coal onto fires, which would help to produce steam that powered the locomotive,” wrote the Black Inventor Online Museum.
Still, that backbreaking labor allowed McCoy access to the canvas on which he’d paint his first masterpiece. Working up close with locomotives, McCoy “studied the inefficiencies surrounding the existing system of oiling axles.” In response, he devised a lubricating device that distributed oil evenly.
Then as now, proper lubrication was essential to the workings of large mechanical devices like trains. But steam-engine lubrication in the early years of railroads was laborious and time-consuming, requiring numerous stops and restarts as firemen squirted oil onto the axles and gears. The process often delayed trips and frequently led to sporadic care.
McCoy’s 1872 invention, called an oil cup, automatically dripped lubricant to the engine, eliminating the need for costly interruptions. It met with great acclaim, so much so that competitors tried to copy it, with varying degrees of success. When train operators needed such a device, some today claim they often requested “the real McCoy”—a phrase that may be tied to Elijah McCoy and is still used today for the best or verified product.
Ultimately, McCoy would earn nearly 60 patents, many for pioneering advances in lubrication that helped the railroads grow and settle the American West. The principles behind them are still in use today, particularly for ExxonMobil’s work. For one thing, we often rely on railcars to move our products safely around the country. Moreover, ExxonMobil ranks among the nation’s largest producers of industrial lubricants, providing protection to engines and machines while extending equipment life and minimizing environmental impacts.
McCoy died in 1929 in Detroit, where he had lived for years. But his memory continues to be honored among contemporary innovators. Today, would-be inventors in the Midwest can mail their applications to the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional Office.