During America’s Industrial Revolution, there was perhaps no invention more impactful than the steam engine. By boiling water and using hot steam to drive a piston back and forth, the movement of the piston would then power a machine or rotate a wheel. This allowed factories to transition away from relying on wind and waterpower sources, allowing these facilities to be built anywhere.
It soon became clear that steam had the potential to revolutionize both manufacturing and transportation. In 1829, the first steam locomotives were imported from England and began to be used for the transportation of materials, and eventually people, across the country at an unprecedented pace.
To function properly, steam engines needed constant fuel and lubrication. The former could be completed while the train was moving by shoveling coal into the firebox, but for the latter to occur, the train needed to come to a complete stop so that it wouldn’t overheat.
However, thanks to the automatic engine lubricator invented by National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee® (NIHF) Elijah McCoy, steam-powered trains no longer had to stop during travel in order to lubricate.
Read below to learn more about how McCoy overcame great odds to invent a device that was foundational to steam-powered train travel.
McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred McCoy. Born into slavery, his parents had fled Kentucky and arrived in Canada using the Underground Railroad. George decided to enlist in the British forces and was awarded 160 acres of land in return.
At the age of 3, McCoy and his family moved back to the U.S. and eventually settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where his father opened a tobacco business. Even from a young age, McCoy loved playing with his father’s tools and machines, and he experimented with different ways to fix and improve them.
The Real McCoy
When he turned 15, McCoy was sent to school in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied mechanical engineering. When he returned to the U.S., he landed a job working for the Michigan Central Railroad. The company’s deep-rooted discriminatory practices excluded Black men from becoming engineers at that time, so McCoy was hired to work in the boiler room of trains as a fireman. This position required him to shovel coal into the train’s furnace and maintain the engine’s moving parts, axles and bearings.
Though working as a fireman was not ideal, thanks to his training and education, McCoy was able to develop a more effective way to lubricate the engine and prevent it from overheating. What he came up with was an automatic lubricator that used steam pressure to pump oil where it was needed.
McCoy patented his invention, known as an “oil-drip cup,” in 1872, and the device was an instant success. However, due to its ingeniously simple design, other railroads began creating similar versions. Historians believe that because McCoy’s version of the “oil-drip cup” was the most effective, engineers began asking for “the real McCoy.”
“McCoy’s patented device was quickly adopted by the railroads, by those who maintained steamship engines and many others who used large machinery,” wrote the University of Michigan. “The device was not particularly complicated, so it was easy for competitors to produce similar devices. However, McCoy’s device was an original development and, apparently, had the best reputation.”
A Lasting Legacy
Throughout his life, McCoy continued to improve the effectiveness and design of his automatic lubricator. The Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to the position of an instructor, where he taught others how to use his inventions, and he later became a consultant to the railroad industry at large regarding patents.
At the time of his passing in 1929, he held 57 U.S. patents, primarily related to the railroad industry.
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