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Elijah McCoy

From Academic Kids

Elijah J. McCoy (2 May, 184410 October, 1929) was an inventor.

Elijah J. McCoy
Elijah J. McCoy

Elijah McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada, to George McCoy and Mildred Goins, both runaway slaves from Kentucky in the United States, who escaped on the Underground Railroad to Colchester, Ontario, Canada. George McCoy enlisted in the British forces to fight the Riel Rebellion. In return he was awarded 160 acres (647,000 m²) of land for his service. When he was three, McCoy's family moved back to the U.S., settling in Detroit, Michigan. He had 11 brothers and sisters. McCoy was fascinated by machinery. He studied engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland from age 16 and on his return to the United States settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

While working as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives, boats, and so on. For this he obtained his first patent, "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam Engines" (US Patent 129,843 (http://patft.uspto.gov/netacgi/nph-Parser?Sect1=PTO1&Sect2=HITOFF&d=PALL&p=1&u=/netahtml/srchnum.htm&r=1&f=G&l=50&s1=129,843.WKU.&OS=PN/129,843&RS=PN/129,843)) on July 12, 1872. Other devices with the same purpose had been patented previously; one is the displacement lubricator which had already attained widespread use and whose technological descendants continued to be widely used into the 20th century. Lubricators were a boon for railroads, allowing trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.

McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones, and after the turn of the century attracted notice among his African-American 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 prolific output ultimately propelled McCoy to a heroic status in the African American community which has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents mostly related to lubrication, but also including 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, when he formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. By that time there were several substantial lubricator manufacturers in multiple countries.

McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart in 1868; she died four years later. He remarried the next year to Mary Eleanor Delaney and moved to Detroit. Elijah McCoy died in Detroit in 1929 at the age of 85, still suffering from injuries from a car accident seven years earlier that killed his second wife. McCoy had been a resident of the Eloise Hospital, also known as the Michigan State Asylum before his death, suffering from dementia.

McCoy was remembered in Detroit long after his death. In 1975, the city celebrated Elijah McCoy Day, as officials placed a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a street for him. These posthumous honors demonstrated his enduring legacy.

A number of biographical sketches on McCoy credit him with revolutionizing the railroad or machine industries, some going so far as to say no other oiling devices could compete with his. At the same time, he is scarcely mentioned in the old lubrication literature; for example, his name is absent in EL Ahrons' Lubrication of Locomotives (1922) which does refer to several other early pioneers and companies of the field.

According to some sources, the saying the real McCoy, meaning the real thing, derives from Elijah: many of his inventions were the basis of inferior copies. Railroad engineers would enquire if a locomotive was fitted with "the real McCoy"; if so they knew it could be driven with confidence. Others dispute this account of the origin of the phrase.

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