Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 231:
THE REAL McCOY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 231.

Today, the inventor of an engine lubricator changes the English language. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Elijah McCoy's parents were slaves who used the underground railway to escape from Kentucky into Canada. Elijah was born there in 1843. His father did well in Canada, and he was able to send Elijah off to college in Scotland. Five years later, Elijah McCoy returned as a trained engineer.

But prospects weren't good for black engineers in Canada then -- during the Civil War. The best job he could get was work as a railroad engine fireman in Michigan. But he was made of the stuff that could turn that kind of adversity into profit.

In the mid 19th century, steam-engine lubrication was a difficult proposition. It required a lot of starting and stopping. It was a nuisance job that ate up a lot of time, and the engine was in danger any time oiling was neglected.

McCoy began experimenting with automatic lubricators. The trick was to create a mechanism with a large reservoir that fed oil into the engine one drip at a time. He patented his first lubricator in 1872 and quickly followed it with five more improvements.

McCoy's lubricators were successful precisely because he understood the problem from both sides -- he was a trained engineer, and he'd worked for years in direct contact with machinery. Today, lubricators are commonplace items. You'll find them in any engine. They're one of the invisible necessities that make the engines of our ingenuity run.

At first, white railway engineers called McCoy's new lubricators "nigger oil cups," but not for long. These new oiling devices were too effective -- they made life so much simpler. Pretty soon McCoy's competitors were copying his designs. Pretty soon those same people began asking if a given lubricator was a copy or if it was "the real McCoy." Pretty soon appreciation triumphed over racism, and a new expression was added to the English language.

Elijah McCoy filed his 45th patent in 1915 when he was 72. By then engines were running at much higher temperatures, and lubrication had become increasingly difficult. He invented a graphite/oil lubricator and then formed a company to produce it. McCoy went into old age proud, active, and alert. He lived to the age of 86.

Few of us remember this fine engineer and inventor today, but he permanently changed America in two ways. He left steam engine technology much better than he found it. And he was the real McCoy who wrote his name where none of us will ever forget it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Hayden, R.C., Black American Inventors. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Pub. Co., 1972.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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