Railroads were one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. One man who was indispensable in helping the railroads run efficiently and on time was a great black inventor from Michigan, Elijah McCoy.
February, as Black History month, is a good time to remember McCoy and to tell his story. He was born in 1843 in Canada, where his parents had fled from Kentucky to escape slavery. In Canada, the McCoys learned that individual freedom and education for work in the marketplace were keys to opening opportunities for blacks.
Upon reaching manhood, Elijah McCoy went to Scotland for training in mechanical engineering. When it came time to apply his industrial skills, the Civil War had ended; blacks were legally free; and McCoy came back to the U. S. He settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he began work for the Michigan Central Railroad.
Despite McCoy's training, he was offered only the lowly job of locomotive fireman. He accepted it with a determination to show the railroad that he could accomplish more.
He immediately applied his skills to a major problem: the dangerous overheating of locomotives. Trains had to stop regularly to oil engine parts to reduce friction. If trains stopped infrequently, the overheating could damage parts or start fires. If they stopped too often, freight and passengers would be delayed. McCoy invented a lubricating cup that oiled engine parts as the train was moving. He secured a patent for it in 1872 and steadily improved it over time.
Others tried to imitate McCoy's invention, but he kept ahead of them with his superior engineering skills. His standard of quality was so high that to separate his lubricating cup from cheaper imitations it became known as "the real McCoy," which many believe to be the origin of the famous phrase.
The invention helped the Michigan Central run safer and quicker across the state. It was also put to use in stationary engines and even in steamship engines. The grateful management of the Michigan Central promoted McCoy and honored him as a teacher and innovator for the railroad.
McCoy showed remarkable creative energy during the next fifty years. He received 51 more patents, mostly for lubricating devices. Not even old age dimmed his creative light. When he was 77, he patented an improved airbrake lubricator; when he was 80, he patented a vehicle wheel tire. He founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1920 to make and sell his inventions.
McCoy was from a generation of great black inventors and businessmen. They included Humphrey H. Reynolds, who invented the ventilator screens for Pullman cars, and George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of marketable products including many derived from the peanut.
Another famous black man, Booker T. Washington, started Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to educate blacks to develop their talents for America's industrial society. By "self-help," Washington hoped, blacks would develop a responsible and talented elite that would help integrate other blacks into the American workplace. The opportunities that freedom brings, not special privileges or government handouts, were what Washington wanted for blacks. "More and more thoughtful students of the race problem," he said, "are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution."
Elijah McCoy was one of many blacks to use his freedom after the Civil War to improve the American workplace and show skeptical whites what free, enterprising blacks could accomplish. For people of all races who believe in self-help, Elijah was--and still is--an inspiring example of "the real McCoy."