What could possibly define success more than having a phrase in the English language defined by one’s name? ‘The Real McCoy’, a term used to indicate ‘the real thing’, underlines Elijah McCoy’s lifetime and legacy as an inventor. With close to 60 patents issued for his inventions during his lifetime, he remains amongst the most prominent of mechanical engineers the world has known.
Born in Ontario, Canada on 2nd May 1844 to George and Emilia McCoy, who fled slavery in the US, Elijah’s childhood was rather challenging as his parents looked to meet ends taking care of him along with 11 of his siblings. The family moved back to the US, settling down in Michigan which became Elijah’s home for the rest of his life. While his first wife Elizabeth passed away just four years post marriage in 1868, Elijah married Mary Eleanor Delaney in 1873.
Elijah McCoy’s displayed a keen interest in mechanics since young age. Taking note of the same, his parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland at the age of 15 to pursue an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. Equipped with this qualification, Elijah returned to Michigan at a time when racism and slavery was at its peak in the US. Resultantly, the he managed to get hired as a blue collared job as a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. As goes the saying, ‘The darkest hour is just before Dawn’, it was here that Elijah set on the path as an Inventor with the development of the ‘lubricating cup’, offering a solution to the inherent problem of the existing oiling axles. This development ushered in a new phase for locomotives aiding shorter travel times and more profitable operations. He received a patent for the same in 1872, a first of many. While other company’s attempted to sell their own versions of the device, but user companies which had extended to not just railroad but also naval vessels, oil-drilling rigs, mining and construction wanted the ‘the Real McCoy’.
The subsequent decades saw Elijah continue on his path to not just improve his invented design but extend his expertise across industries. He developed solutions in a variety of machines including the ironing board, lawn sprinkler amongst others, which ultimately led him to incorporate his company Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920.
Elijah McCoy died on 10th October, 1929 after suffering for the few years before this death, from injuries which he suffered following a car accident. His life continues to remain an inspiration for many across the world – born into abject poverty in an era where slavery persisted, here was an individual who overcame all obstacles to pursue his love of the field of Engineering, in effect getting recognised amongst the greatest of inventors. The impact he left on his hometown echoes till now - the first satellite office of the US Patent & Trademark Office, set up in Michigan, was named as the "Elijah J. McCoy United States Patent and Trademark Office".