Today in history – July 12, 1872 - Elijah McCoy created an invention that has made him arguably the most notable African American inventor ever. His birth date is still unknown although the date is speculated by many sources ranging from March 27, 1843 to May 2, 1844. His story would not have been possible if not for his parents. They were former slaves who fled from Kentucky to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad. Elijah one of 12 children would then be born in Colchester, Canada (interesting fact most the slaves that escaped via the Underground Railroad escaped to Canada). His father, George McCoy, enrolled in the British forces to help stop the Canadian leader Louis Riel’s launched rebellion in 1837. In appreciation of his military services, George McCoy was given 160 acres of land by the British. As a result of his father’s ties to Britain, at the age of 16 Elijah McCoy he was offered and accepted an apprenticeship in Mechanical Engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland. At the time he was awarded the apprenticeship, slavery in America had not yet been abolished. Thus, this opportunity wouldn’t have been possible if his family hadn’t escaped slavery in America. One can’t help but wonder how many other McCoy’s were unable to mature intellectually because of slavery?
In the story of Elijah McCoy it is important to remember the opportunities given to him were basically unheard of as far as African American’s had been concerned; he took full advantage of them. He earned credentials in Scotland being recognized as a master mechanic and engineer. Despite the accolades he received in Scotland, when he returned to the U.S post Civil War (slavery abolished) he was not able to receive a job in his field. Instead he became a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad”. Although this was not in his field, this was seen as a responsible job and one of the highest an African American could receive at the time. The position required that he be responsible for “fueling the steam engine and [as] the oiler [he] lubricated the engine’s moving parts as well as the train’s axles and bearings.” . What his employers did not plan on was the fact that his credentials would help him see and solve problems that neither his co-workers nor superiors could. At that time trains needed to be periodically stopped in order to be lubricated. McCoy developed a lubricator for steam engines that allowed the train to be lubricated without stopping. This lubricator was duplicated by many but never matched the proficiency of McCoy’s invention. This is why he is referred to as the originator for his invention deemed the “The Real McCoy” a phrase that is still used today. He patented the invention on July 12, 1872 the “Locomotive Lubricator”. When we think about the importance of his invention we have to remember that there was no successful plane flight until 20 years later. So, the train was the only means for extensive travel within the Unites States and his lubricating system increased the distance trains could run without requiring stops.
McCoy didn’t stop at the “Locomotive Lubricator”; he obtained 58 patents in his life time, the most of any African American at that time. His hard work made substantial advancements in mechanical engineering and that is why he is being acknowledged today in history.
Interested readers are encouraged to visit the Engineering Pathway’s resources on African American scientists, engineers & inventors and our engineering diversity or our computing diversity websites.
Readers interested in inventions by African Americans may want to view the following blogs: Ice cream scoop invented (February 2), Birth of first self-made millionairess (December 23), John Hopkins hospital performs first open heart surgery (November 29), and Howard University founded in 1866 (November 20).