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