They Had A Dream

Elijah McCoy


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Courtesy of Floyd W. Cook, 410 Hamilton, Washington, Illinois 61571

'Copyright 1969, The Los Angeles Times - Reprinted with its permission.'

I am sure readers of the Iron-Men Album would be interested in hearing about a great Negro inventor, Elijah McCoy, developer of drip lubricators and other oiling systems. Imagine having to stop a steam engine or threshing machine once in a while to oil it, as they had to do before his inventions.

Also, all you steam engine men, as you look upon the steam dome of your engine, reflect awhile upon this great Negro mechanic who made it possible.

We appreciate the permission from the Los Angles Times to reprint this article - Anna Mae.

Elijah McCoy was a pioneer in the development of lubricating systems for industry and transportation as the Industrial Age was dawning in America.

Before McCoy put his inventive talents to work, heavy machinery of all sorts had to be stopped periodically in order to be lubricated. McCoy invented a simple though revolutionary device which made it possible to lubricate machinery while it was in motion.

McCoy's device was used on the locomotives of the great Western railroads, on Great Lakes steamers, on transatlantic liners and on the heavy machinery of factories across the nation.

It consisted of a 'drip cup' holding a supply of oil which was fed through a regulating 'stopcock' to the moving parts of the machinery.

The system came to be known as the 'McCoy system,' and later as the 'real McCoy.' Although commonly accepted accounts claim otherwise, some say McCoy's invention gave rise to the slang expression 'the real McCoy,' meaning the genuine article.

During 54 years as an inventor, McCoy patented an amazing array of devices, more than 50 in all.

Many of the patents were on lubricating devices of various sorts or were improvements on his earlier system. But he also was issued patents on a steam dome for locomotives, a scaffold support, a valve and plug-cock, a vehicle wheel tire, a rubber heel, an ironing table and a lawn sprinkler.

Born in Canada in 1843, McCoy was the son of George and Mildred McCoy who were runaway slaves from Kentucky. There is no known record of his schooling or early life.

But it is known that he moved to the United States after the Civil War and in 1870 was living in Ypsilanti, Mich. Some accounts say he owned a small machine shop there.

It was in Ypsilanti that he began experiments which led to the development of a lubricating system for steam engines. He patented the device, his first, on June 23, 1872.

In the next four years, McCoy was granted six other patents. Often he sold the rights to them to raise enough capital to continue his experimentation.

Sometime around 1882, McCoy moved to Detroit and in the next 44 years was granted an average of a patent a year. Most were for lubricating devices.

In 1920, he organized his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Co. In that same year he patented an improved air brake lubricator.

He was 77 at the time and in ill health. Eight years later McCoy was admitted to the Eloise Infirmary in Eloise, Mich., where he died in 1929. He is buried in Detroit.