Elijah McCoy Biography - Inventions, Facts & Death

Elijah McCoy was a 19th-century African American inventor well known for designing lubricating devices intended to improve the efficiency of railway travel.

Elijah McCoy: Who Was He?

Elijah McCoy was born in Canada to slave-escaping parents. As a youth, McCoy studied engineering in Scotland. He obtained a job working for a railway after being unable to get engineering employment in the United States and later devised a lubricating system to make railway operations more efficient.

McCoy was born to George and Mildred Goins McCoy on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. The McCoys were runaway slaves who had fled to Canada through the Underground Railroad from Kentucky. The huge family returned to the United States in 1847 and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan.


Inventor and Engineer

McCoy has a great interest in mechanics from an early age. At the age of 15, his parents arranged for him to move to Scotland for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. He returned to Michigan after earning his mechanical engineering certification.

Despite his skills, McCoy was unable to obtain employment as an engineer in the United States owing to racial obstacles; at the time, skilled professional professions were not accessible for African Americans, regardless of their training or experience. McCoy obtained employment with the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman and oiler. He made his first significant innovations while working in this field. McCoy designed a lubricating cup that dispersed oil uniformly throughout the engine’s moving components after researching the inefficiencies inherent in the old way of oiling axles. He was granted a patent for this design, which enabled trains to operate continuously for extended periods of time without stopping for maintenance.

READ ALSO:  Michael Oher Story and 'The Blind Side'

McCoy continued to improve his gadgets, gaining over 60 patents throughout his lifetime. While lubricating systems were the focus of most of his innovations, he also created ideas for an ironing board, a lawn sprayer, and other devices. Although McCoy’s accomplishments were acknowledged at the time, his name did not appear on the bulk of the goods he designed. Lacking the funds to mass-produce his lubricants, he often transferred his patent rights to his employees or sold them to investors. McCoy founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920, towards the end of his life, to make lubricants carrying his name.

In 1868, Family McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart. She passed away four years after they married. McCoy married Mary Eleanor Delaney in 1873. The McCoys were engaged in a car accident in 1922. Mary died, and Elijah suffered severe injuries from which he never completely recovered.


McCoy died on October 10, 1929, at the Eloise Infirmary in Detroit, Michigan. He was 85. He was laid to rest at Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.