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"Improvements on Lubricators for Steam Engines." Patent no. 3499, filed by Elijah McCoy, Charles G. Wiard and George G. Roby, 1874


Patent no. 3499. Filing year, 1874.

"Improvements on Lubricators for Steam Engines," Elijah J. McCoy.

Elijah J. McCoy was the typical proactive and resourceful inventor: he saw a need in industry and responded by developing and patenting a solution that found widespread use. What makes McCoy's achievement outstanding is that it occurred at a time when systemic racism limited the options of Black North Americans.

McCoy's link to Canada was brief but significant. His parents were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada on the famed "Underground Railroad." This secret network conveyed thousands of escaped slaves from the southern United States to northern states and to Canada in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The McCoys settled on a farm near Colchester, Ontario, where their son Elijah, one of 12 children, was born in either 1843 or 1844.

When Elijah was about three years old, the McCoys moved back to the United States, settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan, near Detroit. Elijah showed ingenuity and technical aptitude at a young age and was sent at 15 to Edinburgh, Scotland, to study engineering. He returned to Michigan in 1870 as a fully qualified mechanical engineer, yet could only find work as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad. His main job was to shovel coal for the steam engines and to oil and lubricate the moving parts of the train.

At the time, trains had to be shut down periodically in order to be fully lubricated. McCoy soon realized the potential for a device that could lubricate machinery automatically when required. He first patented his automatic lubricating device in 1872, and patented an improved version the following year. The 1874 patent pictured here (likely the Canadian version of his improved U.S. patent) consists of an oil-cup containing a tube and valve that is attached to a steam cylinder. When the steam pressure is exhausted -- which is when lubrication is needed the most -- the valve opens automatically, releasing oil into the cylinder.

McCoy's invention was an immediate boon for railroads, as it allowed trains to be lubricated as they ran, saving time and money by reducing stops for maintenance. His invention could also be applied to most other steam-driven technologies, including ocean liners. Unfortunately, McCoy lacked the capital to manufacture lubricators himself, and had to sell his patents to investors. As a result, he saw little of the money that made his patent-holders rich.

In 1882, McCoy married and moved to Detroit, where he worked as a consultant for lubricator manufacturers and continued to work on his inventions. He is said to have registered 57 patents for lubricators alone -- including Canadian patents no. 14270 and no. 21799. But he is also credited with as many as 30 other inventions, including a folding ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, and a rubber heel for shoes. Elijah McCoy is revered as an African-American industrial pioneer. As well, according to some sources, the quality of McCoy's lubricators was such that engineers would seek out "the real McCoy" for their engines; McCoy's invention may thus have given rise to a now common expression for genuine, quality product.


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"Elijah McCoy." Ontario Black History Society.
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