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Elijah McCoy Heroes

The International African Inventors Museum (IAIM) is submitting a nomination of Elijah McCoy for selection to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame. The category is either Heroes or Technology.

Elijah McCoy 1843-1929

Elijah McCoy patented over fifty inventions.

So, you want the "real McCoy?" That means you want the "real thing," what you know to be of the highest quality, not an inferior imitation.

The noted African Canadian inventor, Elijah McCoy was issued more than 57 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. Machinists and engineers who wanted genuine McCoy lubricators might have used the expression "the real McCoy."
In 1837 George and Emillia McCoy, who were slaves in Kentucky, escaped to Canada by using the Underground Railroad

George McCoy served honorably in the 1837 Rebel War. The Canadian government gave him 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario upon discharge.

Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1843 (or 1844, depending on the source). When Elijah was three, his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Detroit, Michigan. He had eleven brothers and sisters. He attended public school until the age of 15.

His parents were able to save enough money to send Elijah to school in Edinburgh Scotland to learn mechanical engineering in 1859/1860. , Elijah McCoy served a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Elijah returned to Canada after the Civil War was over, living with his family for about a year before moving to Ypsilanti Michigan. Elijah was not able to find a job in his field in Southwest Ontario. Therefore, he returned to Michigan to pursue a position in his field
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. 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.

In 1872 Elijah patented (U.S. 129,843, which issued on July 12, 1872) his first invention, a self-regulating lubricator that utilized the steam pressure in the cylinders to operate the valve. 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.

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". 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.

With the increase of industry and passenger travel, railroad companies needed larger locomotives. James J. Hill, builder of the Great Northern Railroad, introduced monsters that were up to four times larger than their predecessors, along with large-capacity freight cars. Such locomotives burned coal in large amounts, and demanded high horsepower, while using less coal. The solution lay in the use of superheated steam, with high temperature and pressure. Superheating boosted the engines' efficiency, allowing a locomotive to get more miles per ton of coal. It also brought new problems in lubrication.
The author Robert C. Hayden, in his book Eight Black American Inventors, quoted an article in the Engineer's Journal: "There is no denying the fact that our present experience in lubricating the cylinders of engines using superheated steam is anything but satisfactory ... If the oil feed was made regular so the steam would distribute it over the bearing surface of cylinder while the engine was working, these bearing surfaces would be better protected than is now otherwise possible."

Rather than use oil alone as a lubricant, designers preferred to mix the oil with powdered graphite, a form of carbon. Powdered graphite is soft and greasy, and easily withstands high temperatures. However, because it is a powder rather than a liquid, it can clog an engine. In April 1915, McCoy received a patent for what he called a "Locomotive Lubricator." Within his patent application, he claimed that this invention would permit the use of graphite "without danger of clogging."

Hayden cites a letter from a railroad superintendent: "We have found the McCoy Graphite Lubricator to be of considerable assistance in lubrication of locomotives equipped with superheaters.... There is a decided advantage in better lubrication and reduction of wear in valves and piston rings, and as a well lubricated engine is more economical in the use of fuel, there is unquestionably a saving in fuel."

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.
Like so many other inventors of this era, Elijah used up his money trying to perfect his inventions. Unfortunately, Elijah McCoy suffered in his later years, enduring a financial, mental, and physical breakdown. McCoy died on October 10, 1929 from senile dementia caused by hypertension after spending a year in the Eloise Infirmary in Michigan.
Whatever the reason, we still know that when we want the best, we ask for the "Real McCoy".

Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Haskens, Jim. Outward Dreams. Walker, 1991.
Hayden, Robert C. Eight Black American Inventors. Addison-Wesley, 1972.
Klein, Aaron E. The Hidden Contributors. Doubleday, 1971.
Towle, Wendy. The Real McCoy. Scholastic, 1993.
Black Inventors, A Class Act from The Great Idea Finder
Transportation History from The Great Idea Finder

The Real Mccoy
by Wendy Towle, Wil Clay / Paperback: 32 pages / Scholastic Paperbacks (1995)
A biography of the Canadian-born black American who studied engineering in Scotland and patented over fifty inventions despite the obstacles he faced because of his race. This African-American inventor produced over fifty inventions and was best known for an automatic oil cup he developed in 1872.

Black Inventors
by Nathan Aaseng / Hardcover: 144 pages / Facts on File, Inc.(August 1997)
Ten short, well-written biographies tell the stories of black inventors whose contributions have often been overlooked or unrecognized.

Great Negroes Past and Present
by Russell L. Adams / Paperback: 212 pages / African American Images; 3rd edition (Dec. 1976) One hundred and seventy-five historically organized biographies of famous African Americans in areas such as education, science, music, and more.

Black Pioneers of Science and Invention
by Louis Haber / Paperback: 264 pages / Odyssey Classics, Reprint edition (January 1992)
A readable, perceptive account of the lives of fourteen gifted black Americans who have played important roles in this country's scientific and industrial progress.

Five Notable Inventors (Great Black Heroes)
by Wade Hudson, Ron Garnett (Illustrator) / Paperback:/ Cartwheel Books; ; (April 1995)
Follows five inventors: Elijah "the real" McCoy, machinery oiling equipment; Madame C.J. Walker, hair products for black women; Granville Woods, electrical signal system for trains; Garrett Morgan, gas masks and traffic signals; and Jan Matzeliger, shoe machinery.

Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Elijah McCoy featured January, 1996 for his invention of the Automatic Oil Cup.
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/iow/mccoy.html)

Black Inventior Elijah McCoy
Although the name Elijah McCoy may be unknown to most people, the enormity of his ingenuity and the quality of his inventions have created a level of distinction which bears his name.
(URL: www.blackinventor.com/pages/elijahmccoy.html)
National Inventors Hall of Fame

The National Inventors Hall of Fame™ honors the women and men responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.
(URL: www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/167.html)

African - Canadian People
His work as an inventor came during a time that was very difficult for "African - Canadian people"; yet, through hard work, he succeeded and made a great contribution.
(URL: www.bccns.com/elijah.htm)
Elijah McCoy: Inventor
McCoy's first invention (1872) was a revolutionary way of lubricating steam engines without having to shut them down.
(URL: www.enchantedlearning.com/inventors/page/m/mccoy.shtml)

Black Inventors in America
Though blacks contributed to the technological development there was little public recognition of their achievements. They seem not to have fully enjoyed the benefits of their inventions, whether due to untimely death or to lack of capital.
(URL: www.si.edu/anacostia/)

Elijah McCoy Brief Biography
He opened the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Co (1920) and patented an improved airbrake lubricator, one of the some 50 patents he obtained during his lifetime.
(URL: www.biography.com/search/article.do?id=9391300)

Nominator Details:

Nominator Name: Francis Jeffers, curator of the International African Inventors Museum
The International African Inventors Museum promotes positive images and self-esteem in children and adults and teaches people of all nationalities about the contributions that Africans throughout the world have given to society.
It is a mobile museum, which travels nationally and internationally to inform in a visual display. The display consists of every day items such as the window cleaner, the eggbeater, lawn mower, space shuttle retrieval and more. The International African Inventors Museum is the largest traveling museum featuring the contributions of African Canadians, African Americans, Afro-British and Caribbean inventors in the world and is based in Toronto, Canada.

Nominee (Additional Details):

Is Nominee Alive: No

Born in Colchester, Ontario
Elijah McCoy - Drawing For Patent #129,843
Patent Drawing
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U.S. patent #129,843 - Improvement in lubricators for steam engines - issued on 7/23/1872

Elijah McCoy - Text For Patent #129,843

Elijah McCoy
Born May 2 1844 - Died Oct 10 1929

Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines
Automatic Engine Lubricator
Patent Number(s) 129,843

Inducted 2001

Elijah McCoy received his first patent for an automatic lubricating device in 1872. Previously, engines had to be stopped before necessary lubrication could be applied. McCoy's invention allowed engines to be lubricated while they ran, saving precious time and money.

Invention Impact

Inventor Bio

McCoy's parents were slaves who escaped from Kentucky to Canada. McCoy was born in Canada, later moving with his family to Ypsilanti, Michigan. When he was fifteen, his parents sent him to school in Scotland. There, he studied mechanical engineering, a field that had interested him from the time he was young. Returning home, McCoy was unable to find work as a mechanical engineer, so he went to work for the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman. His duties included lubricating engine parts. Engines needed frequent lubrication, and each time, the trains had to be stopped and started, an inefficient process. McCoy was convinced there was a better way and invented his automatic lubricator.

McCoy continued to create improvements on his device, and soon, long distance locomotives, transatlantic ships, and factory machines were using his lubricating invention. His reputation spread, and users of heavy equipment were wary of buying cheap substitutes. As a result, they often asked for "the real McCoy," a phrase that still exists in today's vocabulary.


Elijah McCoy is the most well known African Canadian Inventor in Canada and is a hero to African Canadians all over Canada. Elijah McCoy is a member of the Hall of Fame of Inventors in the USA but has not been fully recognized in Canadian institutions of innovation. He is an inspiration to young people, especially technologically minded youth as less than 1% of African Canadian youth entered the fields of science and technology. This nomination is extremely important in the quest to a) increase the participation of African Canadians in field of science and technology
b) Increase the awareness of African Canadians and other Canadians of the contributions of African Canadians to the rich history of railway innovation in Canada

We thank the Advisory committee of the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame for the opportunity to nominate a great Canadian Innovator and Hero to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame.


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