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"Dream the impossible because dreams do come true."

Elijah McCoy

About Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy overcame challenges that African-Americans faced in his time for education and employment to become one of the first successful contributors to the field of tribology. McCoy was an exceptionally bright young man and excelled in mathematics and science. Around the age of 15, he completed his local education and his father sought to send him to an engineering school. Upon the advice of a friend, he eventually sent him to apprentice in Edinburgh, Scotland. McCoy spent five years in Edinburgh as an apprentice to a mechanical engineer. He ultimately moved back to Ypsilanti in 1864, at the close of the Civil War, as a “master mechanic and engineer,” but racial prejudice would slow his blossoming career, as he found it difficult to obtain a position in the engineering field.

Since he was unable to find work as a degreed engineer, he went to work on a job as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1870. As McCoy discovered on the job, one of the major inefficiencies of railroading was proper lubrication of the engine’s moving parts. Trains had to stop periodically to be lubricated by hand, so as not to over-heat. He soon realized the need for a device to provide oil directly into a railroad engine and he set out to create one.

McCoy began to study the subject of engine lubrication and experimented in his father’s barn, but it was in his machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, that he invented his famous lubricating cup. He used a piston within an oil-filled chamber and driven by steam pressure to release oil into the appropriate parts of the engine. He patented this Automatic Steam Chest Locomotive Lubrication Device (U.S. Patent 129,843) in 1872. This new device lubricated the engine while it moved, thus eliminating the need for time consuming and expensive stops to lubricate. This invention became Elijah’s crowning glory as an inventor and it is still in use today.

It didn’t take long for McCoy’s invention to revolutionize the railroad industry. In July of 1872, William Gardner Shipman, an engineer, was quoted in the Ypsilanti Commercial “I have been using the Elijah McCoy’s Patent Lubrication Cup for some time and pronounce it to be the very best lubricating cup I have ever used.” Railroad officials soon hired McCoy to instruct their employees on how to install and maintain the new devices; and from 1872 to 1915 all railroad locomotives were equipped specifically with McCoy lubricators.

In his spare time, McCoy continued to experiment and develop new inventions - 50 by the end of his career - which included variations on the automatic lubricator, folding ironing tables and even a lawn sprinkler. He was responsible for 57 total patents filed with the U.S. government. 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 who would make millions from his work.

Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career, when he formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce them. McCoy eventually passed away on October 10, 1929, at the age of 85, after suffering injuries from a car accident seven years earlier in which his wife Mary died.


Elijah McCoy was nominated by Rich Wurzbach, President of MRG Laboratories:

Elijah McCoy challenged the status quo of manual lubrication, worked to patent his designs, and the result is a safer and more efficient industry that routinely utilizes automatic lubrication devices to extend equipment life and reduce wear and damage to machinery. He is the inspiration for the Elijah McCoy Award which I have suggested to the International Council for Machinery Lubrication to annually honor an outstanding lubrication practitioner that brings innovation to the work of machinery lubrication.

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