Who Was Elijah McCoy?
Elijah McCoy was born in Canada, to parents who had fled slavery. McCoy trained as an engineer in Scotland as a teenager. Unable to find an engineering position in the United States, he took a job working for a railroad and subsequently invented a lubrication device to make railroad operations more efficient.
McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to George and Mildred Goins McCoy. The McCoys were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In 1847, the large family returned to the United States, settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Engineer and Inventor
Beginning at a young age, McCoy showed a strong interest in mechanics. His parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. He returned home to Michigan after becoming certified as a mechanical engineer.
Despite his qualifications, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer in the United States due to racial barriers; skilled professional positions were not available for African Americans at the time, regardless of their training or background. McCoy accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this line of work that he developed his first major inventions. After studying the inefficiencies inherent in the existing system of oiling axles, McCoy invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine's moving parts. He obtained a patent for this invention, which allowed trains to run continuously for long periods of time without pausing for maintenance.
McCoy continued to refine his devices, receiving nearly 60 patents over the course of his life. While the majority of his inventions related to lubrication systems, he also developed designs for an ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, and other machines. Although McCoy's achievements were recognized in his own time, his name did not appear on the majority of the products that he devised. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he typically assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. In 1920, toward the end of his life, McCoy formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce lubricators bearing his name.
McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart in 1868. She died four years after their marriage. In 1873, McCoy married Mary Eleanor Delaney. In 1922, the McCoys were involved in an automobile accident. Mary died, while Elijah sustained critical injuries from which he never fully recovered.
McCoy died in the Eloise Infirmary in Detroit, Michigan, on October 10, 1929. He was 85. He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
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