Elijah McCoy

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Elijah McCoy
McCoy c. 1890[1]
BornMay 2, 1844
DiedOctober 10, 1929(1929-10-10) (aged 85)
Resting placeDetroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan, U.S.
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh
Occupation(s)Engineer, inventor, tribologist, railroad fireman and oiler
Known forInvention of the steam engine automatic lubricator
  • Ann Elizabeth Stewart
  • (m. 1873; died 1923)
First page of US patent 129,843 for Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines

Elijah J. McCoy (May 2, 1844 [A] – October 10, 1929) was a Canadian-American engineer of African-American descent who invented lubrication systems for steam engines. Born free on the Ontario shore of Lake Erie to parents who fled enslavement in Kentucky, he traveled to the United States as a young child when his family returned in 1847, becoming a U.S. resident and citizen. His inventions and accomplishments were honored in 2012 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office named its first regional office, in Detroit, Michigan, the "Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional Patent Office".[3]

Early life[edit]

Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, to George and Mildred Goins McCoy. At the time, they were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Ontario via helpers through the Underground Railroad.[4] George and Mildred arrived in Colchester Township, Essex County, in what was then called Upper Canada in 1837 via Detroit. Elijah McCoy had eleven siblings. Ten of the children were born in Ontario from Alfred (1836) to William (1859).

Upper Canadian schools were segregated under the Common Schools Act as amended in 1850,[5][6] and McCoy was educated in black schools of Colchester Township. At the age of 15, in 1859, Elijah McCoy was sent to Scotland. While there he was apprenticed and, after studying at the University of Edinburgh, certified as a mechanical engineer.[7] Based on 1860 Tax Assessment Rolls, land deeds of sale, and the 1870 US Census it can be determined George McCoy's family moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan in the United States in 1859–60; by the time Elijah returned, his family had established themselves on the farm of John and Maryann Starkweather in Ypsilanti. George used his skills as a tobacconist in order to establish a tobacco and cigar business.[citation needed]


When Elijah McCoy arrived in Michigan, he could find work only as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, McCoy also did more highly skilled work, such as developing improvements and inventions. He invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships, patenting it in 1872 as "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines" (U.S. patent 129,843).

Similar automatic oilers had been patented previously; one is the displacement lubricator, which had already attained widespread use and whose technological descendants continued to be widely used into the 20th century. Lubricators were a boon for railroads, as they enabled trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.[8] By 1899, the Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics reported that the McCoy lubricator was in use on almost all North American railroads.[9]

McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones, and was noted in periodicals of the time, including the Railroad Gazette.[10] Most of his patents dealt with lubricating systems, including a further patent in 1898 which added a glass 'sight-feed' tube to monitor the rate of lubricant delivery (U.S. patent 614,307).

After the turn of the century, he attracted notice among his Black contemporaries. Booker T. Washington, in Story of the Negro (1909), recognized him as having produced more patents than any other Black inventor up to that time. This creativity gave McCoy an honored status in the Black community that has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents; most related to lubrication, but others also included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. In 1920, near the end of his career, he formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.[11]

Regarding the phrase "The real McCoy"[edit]

This popular expression, typically meaning the real thing, has been attributed to Elijah McCoy's oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name,[12] and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with "the real McCoy system".[13][14] This theory is mentioned in Elijah McCoy's biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[8]

The expression "The real McCoy" was first published in Yorkville (now part of Toronto), Ontario, in 1881.[15] Later, the December 1966 issue of Ebony, in an advertisement for Old Taylor bourbon whiskey made mention of Elijah McCoy: "But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name."[16] Other possibilities for its origin have been proposed, including it being a corruption of the Scottish name "Reay Mackay"[17] and while it has undoubtedly been applied as an epithet to many other McCoys, its association with Elijah has become iconic in American parlance.[18]

Marriage and death[edit]

McCoy married for the second time in 1873 to Mary Eleanora Delaney. The couple moved to Detroit when McCoy found work there. Mary McCoy (died 1923) helped found the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Men in 1898.[19] Elijah McCoy died in the Eloise Infirmary in Nankin Township, now Westland, Michigan, on 10 October 1929, at the age of 85, as a result of injuries suffered in a car accident seven years earlier in which his wife Mary died.[20] He is buried in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.[21]

In popular culture[edit]

  • 1966, an ad for Old Taylor bourbon cited Elijah McCoy with a photo and the expression "the real McCoy", ending with the tag line: "But the most famous legacy McCoy left his country was his name."[16]
  • 2006, Canadian playwright Andrew Moodie's The Real McCoy portrayed McCoy's life, the challenges he faced as an African American, and the development of his inventions. It was first produced in Toronto[14] and has also been produced in the United States, for example in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 2011, where it was performed by the Black Rep Theatre.
  • In her 2001 novel Noughts & Crosses, Malorie Blackman describes a racial dystopia in which the roles of black and white people are reversed; Elijah McCoy is among the black scientists, inventors, and pioneers mentioned in a history class that Blackman "never learned about in school".[22]
  • A 1945 song by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, "Isn't it Kinda Fun", from the musical State Fair, includes the lyrical phrase "...this is the real McCoy."


McCoy historical marker, Ypsilanti
  • In 1974, the state of Michigan put a historical marker (P25170) at the McCoys' former home at 5720 Lincoln Avenue,[23] and at his gravesite.[24]
  • In 1975, Detroit celebrated Elijah McCoy Day by placing a historic marker at the site of his home. The city also named a nearby street for him.[25]
  • In 1994, Michigan installed a historical marker (S0642) at his first workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan.[23]
  • In 2001, McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.[8]
  • In 2012, The Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (the first USPTO satellite office) was opened in Detroit, Michigan.[26][27][28][B]
  • In 2022, a Google Doodle appeared in Canada and the U.S. marking his 178th birthday on May 2.[30][31]



  1. ^ Sources give his birthdate as May 2, 1843; May 2, 1844; or less commonly March 27, 1843.
  2. ^ "And the people of Detroit have time and again been they very sort of pioneers who shape our country with innovative audacity. Near the end of the 19th century, an inventor named Elijah McCoy came to this city, drawn by its potential, and history was made-with more than 57 U.S. patents by the end of his remarkable life, Elijah's vision transformed the railroad system, and with it our trade economy. That's the story of American possibility, realized through the power of the American patent-and I can think of no more fitting name to adorn the walls of this new office than the "Real McCoy" himself."[29]


  1. ^ "Portrait of Inventor Elijah McCoy, circa 1890". The Henry Ford. Archived from the original on 12 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  2. ^ "Elijah McCoy Picture". Argot Language Center. Archived from the original on 19 May 2013.
  3. ^ "It's the real McCoy: First patent office outside of D.C. to open in Detroit". Michigan Radio (NPR). 11 January 2012. Archived from the original on 12 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  4. ^ Marshall, Albert (1989). The "real McCoy" of Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti, MI: Marland Pub. ASIN B002O5L4XG.
  5. ^ Smith, Charles C (December 2004). "Tuition Fee Increases and the History of Racial Exclusion in Canadian Legal Education". Ontario Human Rights Commission. Racial Discrimination in Legal Education: A Brief History. Archived from the original on 17 April 2012.
  6. ^ An Act for the better establishment and maintenance of Common Schools in Upper Canada, S.Prov.C. 1850, c. 48, s. 19
  7. ^ "Elijah McCoy (1844–1929)". The University of Edinburgh. 21 July 2015. Archived from the original on 2 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  8. ^ a b c "Elijah McCoy, inventor profile". National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on 28 December 2008.
  9. ^ Owens, A. A.; Jackson, Harvey C. (1899). "Report on Negroes in the State of Michigan". Michigan Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics. 16: 328. Archived from the original on 12 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022. Equally prominent is Mr. Elijah McCoy, engineer and inventor, of Detroit. Mr. McCoy is not only known throughout the State, but also all over the United States and Canada, as a competent engineer and inventor of the McCoy lubricator, which is in use today on nearly all railroads throughout the United States and Canada.
  10. ^ S. Wright Dunning; M. N. Forney (26 October 1872). "New Railroad Patents". Railroad Gazette. p. 461. Archived from the original on 12 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022. Mr. Elijah McCoy, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, is the patentee of this invention, which he describes as follows...
  11. ^ "McCoy, Elijah". Encyclopedia of Detroit. Detroit Historical Society. Archived from the original on 2 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  12. ^ "Elijah McCoy, Inventor of the Week". Lemelson-MIT Program. May 1996. Archived from the original on 23 August 2003. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  13. ^ Quinion, Michael. "The Real McCoy". World Wide Words. Archived from the original on 22 June 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2006.
  14. ^ a b Casselman, William Gordon (2006). "The Real McCoy". Bill Casselman’s Canadian Word of the Day. Archived from the original on 27 April 2011. Retrieved 5 March 2011.
  15. ^ Bond, James S. (1881). The rise and fall of the "Union Club": or, Boy life in Canada. Yorkville, Ontario. p. 1. Archived from the original on 27 June 2014.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  16. ^ a b "Old Taylor bourbon advertisement". Ebony. December 1966. p. 157. Archived from the original on 24 January 2014.
  17. ^ German, Pamela; Robinson, Veronica (Fall 2008). "Is Elijah the 'Real McCoy'?". Ypsilanti Historical Society. Archived from the original on 8 August 2020. Retrieved 2 May 2022.
  18. ^ Boyd, Herb (2017). Black Detroit: A People's History of Self-Determination. Amistad. p. 420. ISBN 978-0-06-234662-9.
  19. ^ Baulch, Vivian M. (26 November 1995). "How Detroit got its first black hospital". The Detroit News. Archived from the original on 10 July 2012.
  20. ^ Bellis, Mary. "Biography of Elijah McCoy, American Inventor". ThoughtCo. Archived from the original on 1 October 2019. Retrieved 2 September 2019.
  21. ^ Jordan, John H. (7 November 2013). Black Americans 17Th Century to 21St Century: Black Struggles and Successes. Trafford. ISBN 9781490717333. Archived from the original on 15 December 2018. Retrieved 15 December 2018.
  22. ^ Blackman, Malorie (2001). Noughts & Crosses. New York: Random House.
  23. ^ a b "Elijah McCoy". MichMarkers.com - The Michigan Historical Marker Web Site. Archived from the original on 30 October 2007.
  24. ^ "Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery". MichMarkers.com - The Michigan Historical Marker Web Site. Archived from the original on 10 July 2007.
  25. ^ "Elijah McCoy Home Informational Site". Detroit - The History and Future of the Motor City. University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 17 April 2008.
  26. ^ "Midwest Regional U.S. Patent and Trademark Office". USPTO. Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 2 May 2017.
  27. ^ Anders, Melissa (13 July 2012). "Detroit beats Silicon Valley in opening first-ever patent office outside Washington, D.C." MLive Media Group. Archived from the original on 19 July 2012. Retrieved 13 July 2012.
  28. ^ Markowitz, Eric (1 March 2012). "What Does a Patent Office Mean For Detroit?". Inc. Archived from the original on 22 May 2012. Retrieved 10 July 2012.
  29. ^ Kappos, David (13 July 2012). "Remarks to Open Elijah J. McCoy USPTO Detroit Location". USPTO. Archived from the original on 9 March 2017. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
  30. ^ Celebrating Elijah McCoy, archived from the original on 2 May 2022, retrieved 2 May 2022
  31. ^ Antonimuthu, Rajamanickam. "Elijah McCoy Google Doodle". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2 May 2022. Retrieved 2 May 2022.

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