By Brad Dison
Elijah was born in Ontario, Canada in 1844. Three years later, Elijah’s family moved to the United States. In 1859, Elijah’s father, George, sent 15-year-old Elijah to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh where he became a certified mechanical engineer. When Elijah returned to the United States, he was unable to find work as an engineer. He eventually settled for a job as an oiler and fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad, a job that was far below his level of education. An oiler’s job was to keep the railroad’s locomotives and rolling stock lubricated. Steam engines of the era required oilers to manually lubricate all the moving parts of an engine including ball bearings and cylinders. Locomotives had to make frequent stops so oilers could lubricate the parts.
Elijah knew there was a better way. He just needed to find it. In his free time, Elijah performed more highly skilled work at the machine shop at his home. Through his efforts to allow trains to run for longer periods without maintenance which made them more efficient, Elijah made improvements to existing equipment and invented new pieces of equipment.
On July 23, 1872, Elijah received patent number 129,843 for his “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines.” Elijah’s invention was a lubricating cup which automatically distributed oil evenly over the engine’s moving parts. Rather than having the oilers lubricate each moving part individually, which took a lot of time, they could fill a central cup with oil. The oil flowed through pipes to the engine parts which required constant lubrication. Railroad companies quickly began installing Elijah’s automatic lubricators on their trains.
Elijah probably could have lived the remainder of his life off the income from this one invention, but Elijah kept making improvements. In 1898, 26 years after he received his patent for the lubricating cup, Elijah added a glass sight feed tube to the system. This improvement enabled engineers to visually monitor the rate at which the moving parts were being lubricated. If the engineer saw that the automatic lubricator was feeding too much oil to the engine, he could partially close a valve to slow the release of oil. If oil was needed, he could open the valve more. A study published the following year concluded that Elijah’s lubricating systems were in use on almost all railroads in North America.
Throughout his lifetime, Elijah received nearly 60 patents, most of which were related to lubrication systems. He also received patents for a lawn sprinkler, an ironing board, and other machines unrelated to steam engines. Elijah’s inventions proved to be reliable and long-lasting. As with any successful product, competitors came up with their own versions of Elijah’s popular products. Most of the copycat products were designed quickly and made as cheaply as possible to maximize profits. The cheaper lubricators failed frequently and required almost constant maintenance. To avoid using the cheap imitations, railroad workers began asking for Elijah’s equipment by name. Over time, Elijah’s name came to symbolize any superior product made by any manufacturer.
Nearly 100 years after his death, Elijah McCoy’s name is still synonymous with quality. To this day, people who want to avoid buying cheaply made imitation goods ask for the real thing. They ask for the real McCoy.
1. “Elijah McCoy – Inventions, Facts & Death.” Biography, April 1, 2021,www.biography.com/inventors/
2. “NIHF Inductee Elijah McCoy Invented the Automatic Engine Lubricator.” Invent.org, January 27, 2020, www.invent.org/inductees/