Elijah McCoy: the Engineer Who Overcame Racial Barriers to Innovate

Elijah McCoy was a trained mechanical engineer, but he couldn't get employed in the U.S. due to his race.
Trevor English

Born in May of 1844 in Ontario, Canada, Elijah McCoy was an African-American inventor who made a significant mark on technical history. His parents were slaves who had escaped from a Kentucky plantation via the Underground Railroad in the early 1800s. 

After years of living life as fugitives and after Elijah was born, in 1847 the McCoys moved to Michigan.


Engineer and Inventor

Elijah first trained as an engineer in Scotland when he was a teen but after graduating was unable to find work in the United States. His inability to find work as an engineer was due to racial barriers in the field at the time. That said, Elijah McCoy soon found work for a Railroad company. 

Elijah McCoy: the Engineer Who Overcame Racial Barriers to Innovate

Growing up, Elijah was very interested in mechanical devices and understanding how they work. This early interest is what inspired his parents to send him to Scotland to get an education.

McCoy accepted the position of fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad, working tirelessly in this field of work. While not employed as an engineer, he had first-hand experience in the railroad industry which allowed him to make a number of inventions in this space. 

His inventions

Notably, he first noticed that there were continuous issues with the oiling systems of axles on rail cars. He designed a cup that would be filled with oil and distribute the oil evenly over a rail car's steam engine's moving parts.

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The patent for this invention was granted to Elijah and he started building prominence as an inventor in the Railroad industry.

Elijah McCoy: the Engineer Who Overcame Racial Barriers to Innovate
McCoy's Lubricator Patent. Source: Public Domain/Wikimedia

Over his entire life, he received 60 patents. Many were related to lubrication systems which he found he had a particular knack for designing, but he did expand his reach into other industries. He designed ironing boards, sprinkler systems for lawn care, as well as a plethora of other machines.

While Elijah McCoy made all of these great inventions and achievements in his lifetime, even getting recognized for them, he lacked the ability to bring most of them to market. Rather, he usually would license his patents to companies with the ability to do so and the products would be sold under that company's name.

Eventually, all of this licensing of patents did come through in a positive manner for Elija as near the end of his life, he formed the McCoy Manufacturing Company. This company successfully manufactured McCoy's patented lubricator devices for the railroad industry. McCoy was finally able to realize his own dream.

 Recognition and Role Model

In the early 1900s, McCoy was acknowledged by his black counterparts, like Booker T. Washington who recognized him as having more patents than any other black inventor of the time. For many, he continues to be a historical role model for the black community. 

Elijah McCoy: the Engineer Who Overcame Racial Barriers to Innovate
A historical placard in Michigan. Source: Dwight Burdette/Wikimedia

In fact, if you're familiar with the popular expression "The Real Mccoy", many believe it's prominence in culture has to do with McCoy. The theory goes that railroad engineers trying to avoid inferior designs of lubrication systems on their cars would inquire if rail cars had "the real McCoy system" fitted to them.

In 2001, Elijah McCoy was inducted into the Inventors Hall of Fame. 

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