Elijah McCoy: An Engineer Who Revolutionized the Railroad Industry

Elijah McCoy: An Engineer Who Revolutionized the Railroad Industry

Elijah McCoy, who some speculate is the inspiration for the term “The Real McCoy”, is best known for being an inventor during the American Industrial Revolution. He transformed the railroad industry with his improvements to the steam engine and registered over 50 patents in his lifetime.

His story starts in Kentucky, where his parents George and Mildred McCoy were enslaved. Enslaved people in Kentucky often laboured on tobacco farms, or became part of the slave trade, being bought, sold, and separated from their families.

In an act of resistance, the McCoy’s bravely decided to escape, despite the dangers ahead. The underground railroad was not as sophisticated as the name implies. The McCoy’s journeyed through a series of dangerous secret routes and safehouses, where they may have encountered wild animals, slave catchers, and unbearable punishment should they be caught.

 It was with the help of freed Black Americans and rebels, who risked life and jail so that those in slavery could make the journey to freedom, that the McCoy’s escaped safely. In this case, freedom was found in southwestern Canada.

The McCoy’s landed in Colchester, Ontario where Elijah McCoy was born a few years later.

Working on the Railroad

At a young age, Elijah would play with his father’s tools and machines, and work on ways to fix them. As he grew into adolescence, he knew that he wanted to become a mechanical engineer.

At the age of 15, Elijah crossed the Atlantic. After completing a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, a 21-year-old McCoy returned to post-Civil War America and found work at the Michigan Central Railroad.

Slavery had only been abolished a few months earlier, and there were still discriminatory policies that excluded Black people from working as engineers. White employers believed that Black people were only suited to physical labour. That’s why McCoy found himself in train boiler rooms, working as a fireman, loading coal into furnaces, and maintaining steam engines.

A Bit About the Steam Engine and Trains

The steam locomotive, which used a steam-powered engine, was a revolutionary invention that allowed for easier and faster transport. This allowed the country to expand, ship goods and move people, promoting industrialization and urbanization.

Before McCoy’s influence, trains would have to stop every few miles to be re-lubricated. If a train was going 80 miles per hour, that would mean the train stopped every 3 – 4 minutes. Firemen like McCoy would have to manually oil the engine’s axels, gears, and levers causing delays to passenger and freight trains.

Since trains moved so fast the oil would quickly wear away, overheat, and corrode the machinery which wasted time and fuel.

McCoy Invents the Oil-Drip Cup

Of course, McCoy had several years of education in mechanical engineering under his belt and a mind that was keen on problem-solving. So, after six years in his role, he invented the oil-drip cup.


McCoy Invents the Oil-Drip Cup


The oil-drip cup allowed steam engines to automatically re-lubricate, which saved people time and money and therefore became a roaring success.

The oil-drip cup used the steam pressure that was already being created. The steam was pushed into a closed vessel with oil in it. The steam would condense into water, sink to the bottom, and then push the oil up into delivery pipes that routed the oil to the appropriate places.

Because the design was so ingenious people began to imitate it. But, since McCoy’s version was the most effective, it is believed that when engineers were looking for his design, they would ask for “The Real McCoy.”

McCoy later went on to register over 50 patents in his lifetime and go down in history as an engineer whose contributions made significant strides in the railway system.

This Black History Month we are proud to celebrate the engineering accomplishments of Ontario-born Elijah McCoy. Achievements that could have easily been stifled had his parents not escaped slavery, and had he let the discriminatory practices of the time keep him from his passion.

We acknowledge that there are still barriers for Black engineers today because of persisting societal biases. At OSPE, we believe that a diverse and inclusive engineering community produces better outcomes. It is not just the right thing to do, it delivers results.

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