Celebrate Black History
Elijah J. McCoy (May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929) was a black Canadian-American inventor and engineer, who was notable for his 57 U.S. patents, most to do with lubrication of steam engines. Born free in Canada, he returned as a five-year-old child with his family to the United States in 1847, where he lived for the rest of his life and became a US citizen.
Beginning at a young age, Elijah 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 continued to refine his devices and design new ones; 50 of his patents dealt with lubricating systems. After the turn of the century, he attracted notice among his black contemporaries. Booker T. Washington in Story of the Negro (1909) recognized him as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This creativity gave McCoy an honored status in the black community that has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents. Most of these were related to lubrication, but others also included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career. He formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his works.
Historians have not agreed on the importance of McCoy’s contribution to the field of lubrication. He is credited in some biographical sketches with revolutionizing the railroad or machine industries with his devices. Early twentieth-century lubrication literature barely mentions him; for example, his name is absent from E. L. Ahrons’ Lubrication of Locomotives (1922), which does identify several other early pioneers and companies of the field.
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.
Elijah McCoy died in the Eloise Infirmary in Detroit, Michigan, on October 10, 1929. He was 86. He is buried at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.
This Day In Black History (Feb. 15):
1. ACTIVIST CLAUDIA JONES BORN (1915-1964) – Claudia Jones born in Belmont, Trinidad and Tobago. She was a feminist, Black Nationalist, political activist, community leader, journalist, and communist in the U.S.. She is also remembered in the UK as ‘the mother of Notting Hill Carnival’.
Jones is also the founder the West Indian Gazette, the first black newspaper in Britain in 1958.
2. NAT KING COLE DIES (1965) – The infamous and unforgettable Nat King Cole dies at the age of 45.
3. 1ST BLACK SYMPHONY CONDUCTOR (1968) – On this day in 1968 Henry Lewis became the conductor and musical director of the New Jersey Symphony becoming the first African-American to lead a major symphony orchestra.