A piece of Canadian engineering history: Elijah “The Real McCoy”

Elijah McCoy (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In honour of Black History Month, today’s #Canada150 blog post celebrates the inventiveness and resourcefulness of Ontario-born Elijah McCoy. If you’ve ever heard the saying, “the Real McCoy,” you already know a thing or two about this innovative mechanical engineer.

McCoy is best known for his invention of the self-regulating, drip-cup lubricator for steam engine trains, which he patented in the United States in 1872 and in Canada in 1874. After working as a fireman/oilman on the Michigan Central Railroad, McCoy was determined to automate the oiling process, so that it would become unnecessary to stop trains every few miles in order to lubricate the axles, bearings and steam engine–which would otherwise corrode and overheat.

Not only would a self-lubricating device improve efficiency, but it could also be applied in a variety of mechanical contexts to improve safety, as many workers often found themselves risking injury while attempting to oil machines that were still in operation. McCoy’s lubricator would use steam pressure to gradually drip oil from a specially-designed cup wherever it was required. Within ten years, the lubricator apparatus–which McCoy continuously worked to improve–was in high demand along railroad and shipping lines, in factories and mines.

The popularity of the device naturally led to the production of lookalike lubricators from other inventors, but the quality and reliability of these products never lived up to McCoy’s. As a result, buyers would request “the Real McCoy” as they sought to purchase the authentic drip-cup, inadvertently coining a phrase that, today, still distinguishes between high-quality originals versus imitation items.

In 1916, McCoy patented the “graphite lubricator,” which suspended powdered graphite in oil to lubricate the cylinders of “superheater” train engines, offering a reduction in wear-and-tear and promoting the more economical use of fuel, but without clogging the engine.

McCoy established his own manufacturing company by 1920 to not only perfect his original innovations, but also to create what would become over 50 other patents in both Canada and the United States. Always a problem-solver on a quest for maximum efficiency, McCoy also invented the portable ironing board and the lawn sprinkler.

Though McCoy was born and raised a free Canadian citizen after his parents escaped slavery in the US via the Underground Railroad, his success story was one characterized by perseverance, even from his earliest of days. McCoy was originally unable to find work as an engineer in southwestern Ontario, prompting his migration to Michigan, where management on the railway also refused to accept that a Black man could be an engineer. Nonetheless, McCoy refused to let discrimination prevent him from applying his educational background and knowledge to improve the working conditions and quality of life experienced by so many.


Canadian Railway Hall of Fame
Library and Archives Canada
The Black Inventor
Historic Canada: Black History

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