Born in 1844, Elijah McCoy was a Canadian-American who loved working with trains. His particular passion was for steam engines and over the course of his life, he was awarded with 57 US patents, most of them in regards to how steam engines were lubricated. His family moved to the United States when he was 5 and he maintained dual citizenship throughout his life. He was born free, although his parents were fugitive slaves. At 15, he had the opportunity to study in Scotland and this is where he became certified as a mechanical engineer.
His Electronic Lubricator Was the “Real McCoy”
What Elijah McCoy invented that became a big hit for those who worked on the railroad was an oil-drip cup that would help to lubricate the engine while in motion. This electronic lubricator was often copied, but the copies were inferior to the real invention that Elijah McCoy had developed. The theory behind the common phrase “the real McCoy” is that engineers would request the invention by name so they would know the locomotive they wanted was fitted with the system that he invented.
The electronic lubricator was invented in 1872, although the invention itself was born out of tragedy. He had married just four years previously and his wife had passed away. To distract himself from the grief, he threw himself into his other love of life and helped to improve the way the American railroad industry operated.
Why Was the Electronic Lubricator Such an Innovation?
Before Elijah McCoy invented the electronic lubricator, every steam engine locomotive had to be completely shut down in order for them to be oiled. In practical terms, this meant that the steam engine had to be shut down after every use in order for it to be properly maintained and would have to be stopped and restarted during long trips as well. The electronic lubricator allowed for the engine to be oiled while it was still running, saving engineers a lot of time and hassle.
As locomotives continued to develop technologically and began becoming larger and powered with hotter items, such as coal, the oil lubricants just weren’t good enough. Some engineers began using a powdered form of graphite to help keep the engine lubricated, but this graphite would chunk up when the engine cooled down. McCoy retooled his invention so that it would help to keep even the hottest engines lubricated effectively with the powdered graphite as well, saving train companies a lot in both time, repairs, and even fuel costs.
In the city of Detroit, Elijah McCoy is honored with a historical marker at his home and there is a street named after him as well. The honors may be considered modest by some, but it is the perfect homage for a man who dedicated his life to helping others through engineering.