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Elijah J. Mccoy: The Real Mccoy


Elijah J. McCoy

Elijah was born May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Essex, Canada, to parents George and Mildred McCoy. His parents were fugitive slaves traveling via the Underground Railroad escaping Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan, in 1837. Elijah was born in Canada, and he had ten siblings. By the year 1859, the family risked enslavement but moved to Ypsilanti, Michigan. Elijah had an aptitude for mechanical things, and his parents saved everything to send him to Edinburg, Scotland, for apprenticeship and study. Elijah earned his degree as a mechanical engineer, eventually returning to Ypsilanti.

At that time, his family was living on a farm belonging to John and Maryann Starkweather. As his father had tobacco experience, he established a tobacco and cigarette business. Using his wagons with a false bottom built into it, he helped runaway slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad.

Elijah was attempting to find work with his credentials, but because of the racism and barriers for African Americans, the only position offered to him was as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad. Elijah, as a fireman, had to shovel two metric tons of coal each hour into the firebox and then walk the train each time it stopped to lubricate the wheels to prevent friction. He knew there was a better way, so he began devising a self-lubricating machine in his shop at home.

In 1872, he finalized his machine and applied for a patent and received US Patent #129,843. This revolutionized the railroad that was plagued by constant stopping and passenger delays. Their trains now ran faster and profitable. But Elijah continued working to improve his machine and, in 1883, received another U.s. Patent #270,238, and another in 1888, #418,139. Elijah sold his patents to companies that went on to make millions.

There were other lubricating machines, but railroad engineers wanted only The Real McCoy. There is a discussion about the phrase, as it seems it was traced to a Scottish advertisement in 1856, but it is associated with Elijah to this day.

Book T. Washington wrote about Elijah and his 57 patents "McCoy had more patents than any other African American at the time." Elijah had also invented a folding iron board and a lawn sprinkler out of necessity to help his wife. Throughout his career, having sold his inventions, he never had the financial means to manufacture his own designs. But, in 1920, he managed to form his company, Elijah J. McCoy Manufacturing Company.

Elijah first married Ann Elizabeth Stewart, but she died after four years of marriage. In 1873 he married Mary Elizabeth Delaney. Together they worked to improve the Detroit community for African Americans. In 1922, Mary died in an auto accident, and Elijah suffered severe injuries. He was now in poor health and died destitute in the Eloise Infirmary in Westland, Michigan, in 1929. He is buried in the Detroit Memorial Park East, Warren, Michigan. Elijah never had any children.

It seems inconceivable that Elijah, a great inventor, would be in poverty during his last years when millions were made off his inventions.

Elijah's Automatic Lubricator

Elijah's Automatic Lubricator

Elijah's Lawn Sprinkler

Elijah's Lawn Sprinkler

Philanthropic Activities of the McCoy's

Mary McCoy had become known as the "Mother of Clubs." She was a community activist, a founding member of the Twentieth Century Club, a leading lady of the African American Detroit club, lending their voices to worthy causes. She was instrumental in securing scholarships for children of former slaves to the university of Michigan. Elijah established the "Business Men's Council" to establish relationships between themselves and white business leaders. Both the McCoys strived to aid the African Ameican community of Detroit.

On July 29, 2016, President Obama signed into law to name the U.S. Post Office at 10721 E. Jefferson Ave. As the "Mary E. McCoy Post Office Building.

Memorials for Elijah J. McCoy

  • 1974 Michigan installed a historical marker on his home, Detroit
  • 1975 Street named in his honor, Detroit, Mi.
  • 1994 Ypsilanti installed marker on his home workshop
  • 2001 Inducted into National Inventors Hall of Fame
  • 2012 U.S. Patent and Trademark Midwest Office Detroit, named in his honor
Elijah J. McCoy Home

Elijah J. McCoy Home


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 17, 2020:

Thanks, Liz for reading. I appreciate it so much.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on September 17, 2020:

Thank you so much for reading and your comments.

Rosina S Khan on September 17, 2020:

It seems Elijah J. Mccoy was a great African American inventor but met a tragic death which is rather sad. It was really nice knowing about him and his inventions. Thank you, Fran, for another wonderful article.

Liz Westwood from UK on September 16, 2020:

This is a fascinating biographical article, a real success story.

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