Remembering the ‘Real McCoy’

Timothy G. Nash and Keith A. Pretty

As we end Black History Month, it’s worth remembering the amazing story of the “Real McCoy.”

Elijah J. McCoy was born a free person in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844. McCoy had a great love for trains, and railroads of different sorts were important to his life from before he was born until his death. His parents, George and Mildred McCoy, arrived in Ontario in 1837 via the famous “Underground Railroad.” McCoy’s family returned to the United States and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1847.

McCoy was a gifted and hardworking student whose parents arranged for him an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering in Scotland at age 15. After completing his studies, McCoy returned to Michigan and earned the designation of certified mechanical engineer. To his great disappointment, racial bias prevented the highly qualified McCoy from gaining employment as an engineer. Not able to overcome the unfair barriers, McCoy accepted employment as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad.

As McCoy performed the task of oiling the various moving parts of a train’s engine, axles and boiler, he began to discover numerous ways lubricating those parts could be done better. The implementation of his ideas would enhance the performance of a train’s moving parts, making the operation of a steam engine more efficient and safer, while extending the life expectancy of its parts. McCoy’s inventions, the most famous of which was referred to as “The McCoy Lubricator Cup” quickly became best in class. McCoy’s cup distributed oil evenly and regularly over an engine’s moving parts in such a unique and path-breaking way that McCoy was awarded his first patent.

Along with previously stated benefits, the cup greatly reduced the need for maintenance and extended the time a train could continuously run by hours and sometimes days, making the operation of a train less costly and more profitable. The cup was said to be so good that many train engineers desired to pilot only trains that were equipped with the McCoy oiler system, not wanting a substitute in tribute to McCoy’s product quality and design. Many would ask, “is this train equipped with ‘The Real McCoy?’ ”

During his life, McCoy would continue to improve his lubrication devices. He was awarded 57 patents over his lifetime, with 50 of his patents awarded in the area of lubrication for steam engines powering locomotives and ships. Of his remaining patents, one was awarded for the folding ironing board and another for a lawn sprinkler. With little capital and minimal management experience, McCoy sold many of his initial patents to acquire the funds needed for additional research and to eventually start his own company. In 1920, he had enough capital to form the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Co. in Detroit producing lubrication products under his own name. McCoy died in 1929 at age 85. In 2011, McCoy was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame.

It is ironic that the Underground Railroad brought McCoy’s parents to freedom as they could not travel by means of a steam-powered above ground train on a steel track from Kentucky to Canada. McCoy’s parents could never have imagined during that dangerous trek that their yet-to-be-born son would, in spite of continued prejudice, revolutionize the above ground railway system and play a vital role in the industrialization and expansion of the American economy.

Keith Pretty is president and CEO of Northwood University. Timothy Nash is senior vice president and director of the McNair Center at Northwood University.