Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy was a prolific inventor and engineer best known for inventing lubrication devices used to make train travel faster and efficient. McCoy was born in Canada to parents who escaped from slavery using the Underground Railroad. At 15, McCoy completed his studies in mechanical engineering in Scotland and returned to the states to look for work.

Racial barriers made it difficult for McCoy to secure a job as an engineer. He accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad and soon began his study of training engines. He spent his time studying the inefficiencies in the existing system of oiling axles. The engines needed to be oiled often and required the train to stop. His first major invention was for a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine’s moving parts. The cup allowed trains to run faster and for longer periods of time without pausing for maintenance. McCoy obtained a patent for this invention.

McCoy’s invention revolutionized the railroad industry. It was so popular that inferior copycats emerged on the market. Railway engineers requested “the real McCoy” to make sure they were getting an authentic version of McCoy’s invention. The popular expression is still used today to refer to “the authentic version of a thing.”

McCoy invented 57 products with most of them pertaining to train engines, but he also made improvements to the ironing board and lawn sprinkler. As symbols of his enduring legacy, there is a historic marker placed at his home in Detroit, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the patent office in Detroit is named after him.

The Ellison for Congress team salues Elijah McCoy for forging a path for more efficient travel.