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The Real McCoy

November 16, 2017 | Lily Anna Blouin

The NRRHoF is creating a series of blog posts during the month of November titled “Take This Hammer: Stories of African American Railroaders.” Our blogs will be part of a year-long worldwide celebration of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture called Lift Every Voice.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the status of the 4 million African Americans who were suddenly freed remained largely unclear. Freedom had brought wages and greater opportunities, but racial tensions continued to shape the structure of employment for African Americans well into the twentieth century and beyond. The railroads continued to play a central role in the African American experience, employing more than 35,000 workers between 1865 and 1875.[1] African Americans were denied access to more prestigious or higher paying positions, such as engineer or foreman.


Like many African Americans in post-Civil War America, Elijah McCoy found that while the Thirteenth Amendment had brought an end to slavery, it had not altered the ideological underpinnings that supported it in the first place.

Elijah McCoy (Date Unknown)

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Born in Colchester, Ontario, ca. May 2, 1843, Elijah McCoy was one of 12 children born to former slaves George and Millie McCoy.[2] Using the Underground Railroad, George and Millie escaped from Kentucky sometime in the late 1830s and eventually made their way to Canada.[3] The McCoy family is thought to have returned to the U.S. sometime between 1847 and 1849, but there is no consensus on precisely when or where.[4]


At an early age, it is said, McCoy showed an aptitude for mechanics and engineering. He was always taking things apart and putting them back together.[5] Recognizing their son’s potential, George and Millie hoped to send Elijah to an engineering school, but there were no U.S. schools that welcomed African American students. Instead, they sent him to Scotland to study Mechanical Engineering as an apprentice at the University of Edinburgh.[6] He was just 15 years old.


According to the Ypsilanti Historical Society, Elijah studied in Scotland for 5 years, before he returned to the U.S. as a “master mechanic and engineer.”[7] In 1864, he settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and immediately began looking for work as an engineer, but lingering racial tensions stalled his progress.


Although Michigan was a free state prior to the Civil War, companies still discriminated and white workers balked at the idea of an African American engineer. Instead, he was offered a job as a fireman and oilman and began his work for the Michigan Central Railroad.


Firemen led dangerous lives, literally feeding wood or coal into the fire in order to produce the steam that powered the locomotive. It was backbreaking work. A young railroader working for the Seaboard Air Line Railway in 1917 recalled, “firing wasn’t work, it was just murder.”[8] It was also one of the lowest paying jobs on the railroad.


Oilman were responsible for periodically lubricating axels and pistons to prevent overheating. Steam engines stopped frequently to allow the oilman time to manually lubricate the necessary parts. Failure to supply the oil could prove to be fatal.


He was completely overqualified. Nevertheless, Elijah, inspired (or frustrated) by the need for a more efficient lubricating system, put his education to work and immediately began experimenting with engine lubrication.

In a small machine shop in Ypsilanti, he spent his time searching for a solution. “His idea,” wrote Louis Haber in Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, “was to provide, in the making of the machine, for certain canals with connecting devices to distribute the oil throughout the machinery and whenever needed, rather than have to figure out the need from memory—in other words, to make lubrication automatic.”[9] After just two years, McCoy had done it. McCoy’s “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines,” also known as the “lubricating cup,” was a self-regulating lubricator that utilized the steam pressure in the cylinders to operate the valve and distribute oil evenly over the engines moving parts.[10]

Elijah McCoy’s first patent, the self-regulating lubricator.

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The “cup” consisted of an oil cup built into a steam cylinder, with a hollow stem running from the bottom of the cup into the cylinder. Inside the stem was a rod with a valve at the upper end and a piston at the bottom. Steam entering the cylinder put pressure on the piston, causing the valve to rise and allowing the oil in the cup to drip out and lubricate the cylinder.[11]


The device was enormously successful. Orders for it came in from railroad companies across the country. In July of 1872, William Gradner Shipman, an engineer, was quoted in the Ypsilanti Commercial as saying, “I have been using Elijah McCoy’s Patent Lubricating Cup for some time and pronounce it to be the very best lubricating cup I have ever used.”[12] “The device would be adjusted and modified in order to apply it to different types of machinery. Versions of the cup would soon be used in steam engines, naval vessels, oil-drilling rigs, mining equipment, in factories and construction sites.”[13] Shortly thereafter, the Michigan Central promoted McCoy to “an instructor in the use of his new inventions,” and he served as a railroad and patent consultant.


In 1882, he left the Michigan Central and moved to Detroit with his second wife, Mary. They settled in an integrated neighborhood in Detroit, where he accepted a job as a mechanical consultant for the Detroit Lubricating Company.[14]


Throughout the remainder of his life, Elijah wrestled with the question of lubrication in railroad locomotives and continued to make improvements to the “cup.” Other patented McCoy inventions include an independent lubrication system for a two-piston cylinder, which was a special method of protecting engine valves from dust and dirt. This invention helped prevent accidents caused by the displacement of parts. Perhaps his second most important invention, the graphite lubricator, “used powdered graphite suspended in oil to lubricate cylinders of “superheater” train engines."[15] His lesser known, non-railroad related patents include a folding ironing table and a lawn sprinkler (pictured below).  By the end of his life, he had filed for approximately 57 patents with the U.S. government.

In 1920, he established his own company—the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. Sadly, his success was short-lived. A car accident in 1922, which tragically killed his wife, left him severely injured. He struggled with his health for several years thereafter until he passed away on October 10, 1929 in Eloise, Michigan.

Today, Elijah McCoy’s accomplishments are largely forgotten, but his story has resurfaced in recent years with his induction into the National Railroad Hall of Fame, the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame, and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. An historic marker also adorns the site of his home in Detroit, and in 2012 the Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent Office opened in Detroit, Michigan.


Perhaps his most enduring legacy is the phrase “the real McCoy.” Although many sources claim that Elijah is the real thing, there are a number of competing mythologies. According to one source, Elijah’s famous “cup” was relatively easy to replicate, but the imitations were simply inferior, so when companies wanted the “authentic device,” they requested “the Real McCoy.”[16] The phrase was later expanded to describe anything genuine. Other potential “McCoys” include the famous “feuding McCoys,” Billy McCoy, a prohibition criminal, Kid McCoy, a 19th century boxer. Additionally, a Kansas mayor, Joseph McCoy, often referred to himself as “The Real McCoy.” We will likely never know where the phrase originated, but we do know that whenever we want the best, we ask for “the Real McCoy.”

Citations and Further Reading:

[1] Kornweibel, Jr., Theodore. Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey. Baltimore, Maryland : The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, 66.


[2] "Elijah McCoy, inventor of quality products." African American Registry. Accessed November 9, 2017.


[3] "Elijah McCoy." Elijah McCoy Home Informational Site. Accessed November 15, 2017.


[4] According to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan when Elijah was only three years old, in 1846-47, but the Ypsilanti Historical Society says the family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1849 with no mention of Detroit at all. Other sources claim the family stayed in Canada and only Elijah made his home in Ypsilanti sometime after the Civil War.


[5] "Elijah McCoy." Elijah McCoy Home Informational Site. Accessed November 15, 2017.


[6] "Elijah McCoy (1844 - 1929)." The University of Edinburgh. July 21, 2015. Accessed November 14, 2017.


[7] German, Pamela, and Veronica Robinson. "Is Elijah the "Real McCoy?"." Ypsilanti Gleanings. Accessed November 12, 2017.


[8] Kornweibel, Jr., Railroads, 66.


[9] Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, 51.


[10] Klein, Aaron E., The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America. Doubleday, 1971, 58-63


[11]Klein, Hidden Contributors, 60.


[12] Marshall, Albert O. “The Real McCoy” of Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti, MI: Marlan Publishers, 1998, 20.




[14] "Elijah McCoy." Scientists: Their Lives and Works, UXL, 2006. Student Resources in Context, Accessed 15 Nov. 2017


[15] Haber, Black Pioneers, 51-59.


[16] Chamberlain, Gaius. "Elijah McCoy." The Black Inventor Online Museum. March 23, 2012. Accessed November 13, 2017.

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