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The eccentric engineer: the forgotten inventor who gave us the Real McCoy

Image credit: Garcef | Dreamstime

This month, we look at how the ‘underground railroad’ to freedom gave us a prolific inventor whose work transformed the railway in the age of American expansion.

There are two things you need to become an engineer – ability and opportunity. For a black American in the mid-19th century, the latter was in very short supply. Despite this, one navigated the obstacles in his path and helped oil the wheels of America’s coming of age.

Elijah McCoy was probably born in 1844, before the Civil War, and under other circumstances might have expected to spend his entire life as a slave on a Southern plantation. Yet Elijah was born free, thanks to his fugitive slave parents, George and Emilia, and the shadowy network of anti-slavery campaigners who helped them escape from the South via the ‘Underground Railroad’. George and Emilia (sometimes called Mildred) escaped to Detroit and then on to Canada, where Elijah and nine of his siblings could be born free.

Even here, being free wasn’t the same as being equal and Elijah could only receive an education in segregated schools, but in 1859 he received what would be his great ‘break’ – the chance to go to Europe and study in Edinburgh. So, aged just 15, he travelled to non-segregated Scotland, where after five years of apprenticeship and study he qualified as a mechanical engineer.

By the time he returned to North America the Civil War was over, slavery was illegal and his family had moved back to the US. Yet life for a black engineer was hardly easy. It was impossible to practise his profession and he was forced to take a job as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad at Ypsilanti. At least this job brought him into contact with the great engineering masterpiece of his day – the steam engine. His job revolved around keeping them moving.

At the time, the greatest enemy of the steam engine was friction. Every few miles the train had to stop while the fireman oiled the axle bearings and cylinders, as the lubricants quickly wore off. This process was expensive in fuel and time, and there clearly had to be a better way of keeping the trains running on time, so McCoy set out to find it in his garden workshop.

The answer he came up with was surprisingly simple – the lubricating oil cup. This device consisted of an oil reservoir with a lid and a feed pipe in the base that dripped oil onto the bearing continuously through an adjustable valve. Perhaps only an engineer working in such close contact with engines could have come up with such an elegant solution. It proved revolutionary. The lubricating oil cup allowed trains to run for hours without stopping. It also reduced wear on bearings, increased the speed of the engines and reduced journey times. In 1872 McCoy took out a patent for his device and finally had the money to begin his engineering practice proper.

Ten years later, we find him in Detroit, working as a consultant engineer for numerous companies and continuing to invent. In all he would be granted 57 patents, mainly in the realm of engine lubrication, but also including a collapsible ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.

Despite this business success, McCoy failed to make much of a fortune. Unable to secure the financial backing to set up his own factory, he was forced to assign his patents to companies he worked for or sell them to investors. The elegance of the lubricating oil cup also led to other problems – it was very easy to copy and ‘pirated’ versions soon appeared on everything from steam trains to ocean liners. In McCoy’s favour, however, was the quality of his design, and it’s often claimed that railwaymen’s demands for ‘the real McCoy’ lubricators led to the coining of that phrase. As with many such expressions, the truth is murky and lost to time.

Even in his 70s, McCoy continued improving and patenting his devices, inventing the graphite lubricator in 1916, which used oil mixed with powdered graphite to lubricate the bearings on the newer ‘superheater’ locomotives.

In 1920, he finally set up his own company, The Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, enabling him to fully capitalise on his inventions, but tragedy soon struck.

Two years later, he and his wife were involved in a car accident that killed her and left him with severe physical and mental scars. Unable to work, he died seven years later, poor and largely unrecognised.

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