In 1837 George and Emillia McCoy, who were slaves in Kentucky, escaped to Canada by using an Underground Railroad route that ran along the Indiana and Ohio border. George enlisted in the Army and served honorably in the 1837 Rebel War. The Canadian government gave him 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario, Canada (on Lake Erie) upon discharge.
A son, Elijah McCoy, was born on May 2, 1843 (or 1844, depending on the source). He attended public school until the age of 15. As a child, Elijah showed great interest in the mechanical devices and tools used on his family’s farm. His parents were able to save enough money to send Elijah to school in Edinburgh Scotland to learn mechanical engineering in 1859/1860.
The five-year period from 1860 to 1865 was a time of great social and technical change. The U. S. Civil raged while Elijah was in Scotland. William John Rankine, who lived in Edinburgh and later Glasgow, wrote “Manual of the steam engine and other prime movers” which introduced the thermodynamics of the Rankine (steam) cycle to engineers. His terms are those used in the field today. Advances in material science and thermodynamics made steam engines more reliable, economical, and capable of operating at greater pressures.
Elijah returned to Canada after the Civil War was over, living with his family for a bout a year before moving to Ypsilanti Michigan. The management of the Michigan Central Railroad could not imagine that a Negro could be an engineer, but did hire him as a train fireman/oilman. He had to stoke the boiler and lubricate the steam cylinders and sliding parts of the train.
One of the problems of hot, high pressure steam is that it is murderously corrosive of most metals, and a thin film of lubrication is required to protect and seal the steam cylinders and pistons. In 1872 Elijah patented his first invention, a self-regulating lubricator that utilized the steam pressure in the cylinders to operate the valve.
Within ten years, his device was so successful that buyers of steam trains and steam engines used in mines and factories would ask if the lubrication systems were the “Real McCoy”.
Elijah was married twice. His first wife was Ann Elizabeth Stewart. They were married in 1868. She died in 1872, the year of his first patent. He married Mary Eleanora Delaney, another child of former slaves, in 1873.
In 1882 Elijah and Mary moved into an integrated neighborhood in Detroit Michigan. He performed consulting work for local firms and worked on his own inventions. Over the course of his life he was granted fifty-two patents, most of which were for improvements in steam engines, although he did patent a folding ironing board and self propelled lawn sprinkler.
In 1916 he patented what he described as his greatest invention, the “graphite lubricator”, which used powdered graphite suspended in oil to lubricate cylinders of “superheater” train engines.
He finally established his own company in 1920 – the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. Shortly afterward, he and his wife were involved in traffic accident. Mary never fully recovered and died in 1923. Elijah’s health deteriorated after her death.
Like so many other inventors of this era, Elijah used up his money trying to perfect his inventions. He was broke and alone when he was admitted to Eliose Infirmary in 1928. He died a year later.
In 1975 the Detroit Historical Commission renamed a street and erected a cast iron sign honoring Elijah McCoy.
His contemporaries recall Elijah as being a kind man who would urge neighborhood children to go to school and get an education. He would show them his inventions and would hire young Negro males to work in his factory.
Elijah McCoy’s contributions to the success of steam engines, the main power source of transportation and manufacturing during the 1850 to 1930 era, are little known today. The demise of the steam engine and the ascendancy of the internal combustion engine and electricity have played a part. So has the invisible nature of lubrication compared to other, more visible features of steam engines.
Whatever the reason, we still know that when we want the best, we ask for the “Real McCoy”.
Information Sources: University of Southern Indiana
- 10 Unsung Black Inventors You Should Know (bestonlinecolleges.com)
- Black History F.Y.I (godowned.wordpress.com)