Elijah McCoy was working as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad, shoveling coal and lubricating engine parts with a handheld oil can when he realized that there must be a better, more efficient way of delivering oil to the vital gears, screws, and cylinders that kept the mighty locomotive engine running. He wondered if a mechanical device existed that could automatically drip the proper amount of oil into the moving parts of the engine whenever and wherever needed so that a train would no longer have to be stopped every few miles to be manually lubricated. After experimenting for two years in a makeshift machine shop, McCoy came up with a design for a special “lubricating cup” that could be fitted into the steam cylinders of locomotives and other stationary machinery.
McCoy was a licensed mechanical engineer who had received his vocational training overseas, McCoy soon discovered that in the 1860s, just after the end of the Civil War, impressive qualifications were not enough to convince an American company to hire a black man for a professional, highly skilled position. For many years, the only job he could find was that of a fireman on the rapidly expanding railroads. Whatever free time he had, he devoted to inventing and perfecting mechanical devices—particularly those that could help him in his work. His lubricating cup, patented in 1872, was followed by a host of other inventions, including a lubricator for use with air-pump brakes; a graphite lubricator, specially designed to oil the new “superheater” locomotive; and a steam dome for locomotives.
In the 1880s McCoy was asked to serve as a mechanical consultant for several Detroit-area firms, and in 1920 he established his own business, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. Most of his patents—close to 50 in all—were for lubricating systems used in steam engines and factory machinery. In his later years, however, he turned his attention to domestic concerns. Among the household items he designed and patented were a folding ironing table, a lawn sprinkler, durable rubber heels for shoes, and a portable scaffold support.
In 1872 McCoy was issued a patent for his invention, and within a short time his automatic lubricator—dubbed “the real McCoy” to distinguish it from the horde of less effective imitations that soon flooded the market—had been installed on locomotives around the country. “McCoy’s invention was a small thing,” wrote Aaron E. Klein in The Hidden Contributors: Black Scientists and Inventors in America, “but it speeded up the railroads, and faster railroad deliveries spurred the economic growth of a nation.”
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