Encyclopedia Of Detroit

McCoy, Elijah

Elijah McCoy was the inventor of the lubricating oil cup that allowed railroad steam engines to be lubricated without stopping the train, saving time and money. McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844. His parents escaped from slavery in Kentucky to Canada on the Underground Railroad. As a child, he became interested in mechanical devices, often taking apart machines and reassembling them. At the age of 15, McCoy was sent by his parents to attend school in Edinburgh, Scotland where he was certified as a mechanical engineer.

In 1866, at the age of 22, McCoy returned from Scotland and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan. At a time immediately following the Civil War, he had difficulty finding a job as an engineer because of his race. Instead of immediately embarking upon the career he had prepared for, McCoy began working for the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman. His job was to oil the axles, bearings, and other moving parts of the train, when it was stopped, and to shovel coal into the firebox of the cab.

While he worked for the Michigan Central Railroad, McCoy also endeavored in a home-based machine shop to develop a way to lubricate the train while it was moving. He came up with an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships while they were running, enabling them to run faster and more profitably. Called the lubricating cup, or lubricating oil cup, he patented it in 1872.

In 1882, McCoy settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked as a mechanical consultant to many engineering firms, establishing his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, in 1920. Although he is most well-known as the inventor of the lubricating oil cup, which he continued to improve upon over the years with more patents, he also invented a portable ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, and enhanced rubber heels for shoes. Throughout his life, Elijah McCoy filed 57 U.S. patents. He was recognized by several of his African American contemporaries, including Booker T. Washington, who in Story of the Negro cited him as having produced more patents than any other African American inventor of his time. The saying “the real McCoy” is sometimes attributed to McCoy’s lubricating cup, but the phrase’s true origin is unknown.

McCoy passed away on October 10, 1929 in the Eloise infirmary at the age of 85. Over the years he had sold the rights to many of his patents and wound up poor in money and in health. In 1974, the state of Michigan put a historical marker in front of his former home at 5720 Lincoln Street, and the city of Detroit named a nearby street in his honor in 1975.

In 2011, Michigan U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow authored an amendment to the Patent Reform Act of 2011 to name the first satellite office of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office which opened in Detroit on July 13, 2012, as the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office.



Mayoral Proclamation celebrating Elijah McCoy, 1975 - 2014.004.173

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