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Elijah McCoy, African-American inventor from Michigan, changed railroad industry

The U.S. Patent and Trademark office in Detroit bears the name of Elijah McCoy, a pioneering African-American inventor. McCoy was born in the mid-1840s, nearly 170 years before the office opened. McCoy had more than 50 patents to his name.

He’s best known for inventing an automatic lubricator that was used on trains.

“We describe his inventions as assisting in lubrication,” says Damian Porcari, the director of the patent office. “If you were an oiler crawling over steam engines at the time, you would describe his inventions as life-saving, or arm-saving.”

McCoy's creation became a necessity on trains, but it never would have happened without an entirely different kind of railroad.

The journey to invention  

McCoy’s parents escaped from slavery in Kentucky on the Underground Railroad. They went to Canada, where McCoy was born, and eventually settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan, according to Herb Boyd, the author of Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.

Boyd says racism limited McCoy’s opportunities as a young professional.

"After going to Scotland as a teenager to become a mechanical engineer, he came back to this country, and was unable to get a job employed in his particular craft," Boyd said. "The Michigan Central Railroad hired him as an oiler and as a fire person. So, he's kind of forced to taking something that is kind of an inferior job."

A prolific innovator

Boyd calls McCoy "absolutely prolific," noting that his work went beyond train lubrication, including one patent for a folding ironing board.

But the self-lubricating device for locomotives would turn out to be the most significant.

"Because it was such an interesting development and innovation, many engineers and conductors began to ask, 'Is this a real McCoy?' And so, many people feel that that's the origin of that particular term. However, there is a lot of controversy on that," Boyd said, noting that there are several competing theories about the origins of the phrase.

"Manufacturing companies made careers off of Elijah McCoy's innovations," Boyd said. "Only later in his life was he able to really take advantage of ... some of his inventions."

Just nine years before he died, McCoy took more control over his own inventions and founded Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, according to Boyd.

The search for other McCoys

"Before his death I think he was highly respected among people who were in the industry," Boyd said. "However, he’s like a number of pioneers who have to overcome a number of obstacles and barriers to take their place in history. There’s always the question of bigotry, and prejudice and racism, discrimination African-Americans had during that time. So some of those people are lost in history.

"We can talk about Elijah McCoy, but he was hardly singular in what he was doing. There were a number of others that we’re still discovering in terms of the breakthroughs and the pioneering efforts that they made."

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Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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