Forgotten Heroes: Elijah McCoy

Forgotten Heroes is a series of posts about extraordinary men and women who are (probably) not remembered by the average person.  Previous heroes include Fred and Cela Sloman,  Ghandl and Skaay and Laura Secord

If you know of a forgotten hero who should be included in this series let me know about him or her in the comment section or via my contact form

Time: July 12, 1872

Places: Colchester, Ontario; Ypsilanti, Michigan.

The son of escaped slaves who fled from Kentucky to Canada, Elijah McCoy knew all about setbacks.

As a teenager he temporarily moved to Scotland in order to become certified as a mechanical engineer but back in North America could only find work as a fireman and oiler once his apprenticeship ended.

Despite his education business owners could not see past the colour of his skin.

Because he couldn’t convince the outside world to give him opportunities he created his own. Working as an oiler gave Elijah time to think as he walked up and down the length of the train oiling the axles, bearings and other moving parts. It was a fairly inefficient and time-consuming way to keep a train lubricated. Not only did someone have to do it manually but the train needed to be stopped periodically in order for Elijah to do his job!

Over the course of the next two years he figured out a new method for lubricating steam engines in ships and locomotives that could be done automatically – he called it an oil cup and on July 12, 1872 he received a patent for this idea.

Others patents include ideas for improved lawn sprinklers and ironing boards (not to mention about 50 patents for lubricating devices). If you’ve ever used a car, locomotive train, ship or rocket there’s a good chance that a descendent of one of Elijah’s inventions is quietly working away inside of it.

Elijah’s personal life was as challenging as his professional one. His first wife, Elizabeth Stewart, died four years into their marriage. About a year after her death he married Mary Eleanor Delaney.

In 1922 Elijah and Mary were involved in a car accident. She died and he sustained permanent injuries. Elijah died in 1929.

Before learning about Elijah’s inventions I’d always assumed patents were generally filed for inventions of entirely new stuff. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that patents can be filed for a small part of a machine or even for an improved version of an old part.

What interests me the most about Elijah’s story is his persistance. Many people were (and are) thwarted by far less in life. And working at a job for which he was grossly overqualified year after year must have been incredibly frustrating.

If only he was still alive. I’d love to hear his stories.



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  1. Pingback: Forgotten Heroes: Emily Murphy | On The Other Hand

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