Elijah McCoy’s parents—George and Emillia McCoy—were slaves in Kentucky who emancipated themselves by traveling the Underground Railroad to Canada. Presumably they used the services of the Michigan residents who facilitated the movement of slaves to freedom in Canada. The McCoys settled near Colchester, Ontario and farmed 160 acres. Colchester is on the north shore of Lake Erie due east of Monroe, Michigan. Son Elijah J. McCoy was born there on May 2, 1844. At an early age, he developed a strong interest in understanding how farm equipment worked. Apparently, he also frequently took apart and reassembled mechanical devices. Recognizing their child’s talents, the McCoy’s saved money and eventually sent Elijah to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering.
After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, many of the former slaves who had settled in Ontario returned to Detroit to take jobs in the city’s burgeoning industries. Elijah McCoy returned to the United States and settled in Ypsilanti. He apparently sought employment as an engineer but was not successful in obtaining such a job. He accepted employment as a fireman on the locomotives of the Michigan Central Railroad whose main line passed through Ypsilanti on its way from Detroit to Chicago. In the Jim Crow era, railroad hired many blacks but, for the most part, they were not allowed to become engineers. Rather many of them were hired to do the difficult and dirty job of feeding coal into boilers.
Ypsilanti, in the years after the Civil War, was a busy place for the railroads since the Huron River was lined with large, water powered mills. Indeed, Ypsilanti residents had choice of rail lines when they sought to travel to Chicago and points west. The Michigan Central took them through Jackson, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo on the way to Chicago. But from the same Ypsilanti depot, they could take a Lake Shore and Michigan Southern train through Hillsdale, Coldwater and on to Chicago. After 1877, both the Michigan Central and the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern were controlled by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his team of investors.
McCoy quickly realized that engineers and their firemen faced a serious challenge keeping the axles and pistons of their steam locomotives well lubricated. They had to stop often to manually squirt oil to axles and many moving parts. If the lubrication was used up, numerous troubles might quickly develop and lead to an accident. The need for oiling was one of several reasons why mid-Nineteenth Century steam locomotives had to stop often. To replenish the coal and water supplies were among the other reasons.
To solve this problem, Elijah McCoy set up a workshop at 229 West Michigan in Ypsilanti. In 1872, he invented a device that automatically oiled the axles, gears and other moving parts of steam locomotives. This was a lubricating cup that allowed oil to flow to the moving parts at a pace a user could determine. In that year, he obtained a patent for his innovation. His patent application states that his device; “… provides a continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine.” This was one of several great technological advances in this era that made railroads much more productive and safe. All-steel cars, air brakes and effective electrical signal systems were similar developments.
McCoy’s patented device was quickly adopted by the railroads, by those who maintained steamship engines and many others who used large machinery. The device was not particularly complicated so it was easy for competitors to produce similar devices. However, McCoy’s device was an original development and, apparently, had the best reputation. This may have been the cause of the emergence of the common phrase “The Real McCoy.”
McCoy sold some rights to his patent to obtain capital to continue his work of developing better ways to oil machinery. He moved to Detroit, lived at 5720 Lincoln and established a firm to manufacture oiling mechanisms for a variety of industrial purposes, including rail and ship engines. In 1916, he developed devices that used graphite for lubrication of engines. In 1922, he and his wife were involved in a serious vehicle accident. Indeed, she was killed and he was seriously injured. Elijah McCoy died at age 84 in 1929. By that time, he held more than 40 patents for lubrication devices.
Elijah McCoy is one of the few Michigan residents commemorated by two historical markers. In addition to this historical marker in Ypsilanti, there is a marker commemorating his achievements at the location where he lived in Detroit. This is the Elijah McCoy Home Informational marker. So far as I know there is no biography devoted to Elijah McCoy.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office was established in 1871. Until July 13, 2012, the only office of this bureaucracy was located in or near Washington, D. C. That has changed. Acting Secretary of Commerce, Rebecca Blank, opened a branch of the Patent Office in Detroit at 300 River Place South on July 13, 2012. Senator Deborah Stabenow suggested to the Obama Administration that this office be designated the Elijah McCoy Patent Office. That suggestion was accepted. Interestingly, this new facility of the Patent Office is located less than three hundred yards from the Parke-Davis Building that is listed as a National Historic Landmark because it was the first structure built exclusively for pharmaceutical research in the United States. It is quite fitting that the first patent office away from Washington is named for a Detroit inventor.
I believe that this historic marker was originally located near 229 West Michigan, the location of Elijah McCoy’s workshop. With the renovation of downtown Ypsilanti early in the 21st century, a small park was created on West Michigan next to the post office. The marker was relocated to that park.
Description of Elijah McCoy’s achievements: http://blackinventor.com/pages/elijah-mccoy.html
Website for Elijah J. McCoy Patent and Trademark Office: http://www.uspto.gov/about/contacts/Detroit.jsp
Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P3,197. Listed: January 20, 1994
Michigan Historical Marker: Erected: March 31, 1994
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description updated: August, 2012
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