STEM History:

Elijah J. McCoy

Elijah J. McCoy


Engineer and Inventor of lubrication systems for steam engines.

Birth/Death Dates

May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929


McCoy is most well-known for inventing an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships, which was patented in 1872 as “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines”. His numerous other inventions mostly related to lubrication, but there were others, including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler

Educational Background

McCoy received his early education in the black schools of Ontario, Canada’s Colchester Township. Later, after studying at the University of Edinburgh, in Edinburgh, Scotland, he was certified as a mechanical engineer.

Struggles This Inventor Overcame:

Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors.

The Problem That This Inventor Solved:

In the mid-late 1800’s, improved methods for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships were needed.

How This Inventor Changed the World

Booker T. Washington, in Story of the Negro (1909), recognized McCoy as having produced more patents than any other Black inventor up to that time. This recognition gave McCoy an honored status in the Black community that has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents; most related to lubrication, but others included a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.

Lasting Impact

The popular expression, “the real McCoy”, typically meaning the real thing, has been attributed to Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”.

McCoy’s inventions and accomplishments were honored in 2012 when the United States Patent and Trademark Office named its first regional office, in Detroit, Michigan, the “Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Regional Patent Office”