During the prime of the age of the steam locomotive, train operators probably didn’t know it, but they owed much of their success and livelihood to Elijah McCoy who invented a technologically elegant device that permitted trains to run for longer distances without stopping and made them safer.
In May of 1843 or 1844 (sources differ), Elijah McCoy was born on a farm in near Colchester, Ontario. He attended public schools until age 15, and during his school years he showed an intense interest in the mechanical devices used on his family’s farm. Even though Elijah was one of twelve children, his parents were able to send him to Edinburgh when he was 15 so he could study mechanical engineering.
After Elijah earned his degree, he returned to Canada for about a year before he and his parents moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan. Because black people were not allowed to work as engineers, Elijah had to accept a job as a locomotive fireman and oiler. This job was very physically demanding, requiring him to shovel two tons of coal per hour into the locomotive’s fire box.
Another part of his job was to oil the parts of the steam engine that were constantly bombarded with steam, which was extremely corrosive to the metals the parts were made of. At first, oiling all the parts that needed it required the train to stop and for the oiler to use an oilcan to lubricate the moving parts. This was a cumbersome arrangement that delayed rail traffic and raised risk of a catastrophic failure of the steam engine.
Elijah McCoy experienced firsthand the tedium of this periodic stop-and-oil procedure, and he put his engineering degree to work and designed an oil cup that automatically dripped oil into the moving parts of the steam engine as they were needed, without having to stop the train. This revolutionized steam engine travel and soon became standard equipment on locomotives everywhere.
How it worked
The design was elegant and ingenious. A piston was set inside an oil-filled container. As steam pushed on the pistons, it drove oil into channels that carried it directly to the engine’s operating parts. Other people tried making their own versions of the oil cup, but none of them worked as well. McCoy took out his first patent on this invention. Sources differ on the exact number, but over his lifetime, McCoy was granted somewhere between 57 and 72 patents. The number is unclear because he sold his patent rights on several inventions to pay for his continuing invention work at his home.
In 1920, at the age of 77, McCoy founded Elijah McCoy Manufacturing in Detroit, but it never was much of a success. Sadly, at the age of 79, McCoy and his wife were involved in a serious car accident. While she lived for another three years, and he lived for another seven, neither of them recovered from their injuries.
In 1975 the city of Detroit held Elijah McCoy Day in appreciation of his accomplishments, placing a historical marker at the site of his former home and naming a street after him. In 2001 McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, and in 2006 McCoy was the subject of a play written by Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie titled The Real McCoy.