Perhaps one of the most interesting African American inventors of the 19th century is Elijah McCoy, a mechanical engineer who literally became a household name. Born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on 2 May 1844, McCoy was also the son of former slaves (his parents had fled Kentucky for Canada on the Underground Railroad). Unlike other African-American pioneers, McCoy received a formal education, having trained in Scotland as a mechanical engineer.
Eventually settling in Detroit, Michigan, McCoy established his own firm, which received 57 U.S. patents — 28 of which he held himself. His first invention, a lubricator for steam engines built in 1872, became perhaps his best known. This invention enabled machines to remain in motion while they were being oiled, making them more reliable and less prone to catastrophic failure.
McCoy’s lubricator became so popular that people inspecting new machines often asked if the equipment contained “the real McCoy,” a reference that since has become a common American expression. Elijah McCoy died on 10 October 1929 near Detroit, Michigan.
1) Eight Black American Inventors.
Robert C. Hayden. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1972.
2) The Hidden Contributors.
Aaron E. Klein. New York: Doubleday, 1971.
3) The Real McCoy.
Wendy Towle. New York: Scholastic, 1993.