Elijah McCoy: Revolutionizing The Railway Industry


Elijah McCoy was a Canadian-American inventor and engineer who developed numerous inventions. Many of these creations were related to steam engines and other machinery.

He’s best known for inventing the oil drip cup, a device that automatically lubricated steam engines and made them run more efficiently.

A Brief History Of Elijah McCoy

Born in Colchester, Ontario, McCoy was the son of escaped slaves from Kentucky who had made their way to Canada via the Underground Railroad. As a child, he had an interest in machines and tools.

Growing up during segregation, it was difficult for McCoy to get specialized training. That’s why, when he was 15 McCoy’s parents sent him to Scotland to learn mechanical engineering.

While in school, his family moved to Michigan in the US where his father started a tobacco and cigar business. 5 years later he returned to North America and became a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad. This meant he was responsible for shoveling coal into the steam train’s boiler and lubricating the moving parts at stops.

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His First Patented Invention

With his inclination toward mechanics, he quickly realized he could improve the lubrication process. This led him to develop a lubricating cup that would drip oil onto moving parts as the train ran. He patented the part and over the next few years, he would continue to better it. By 1899 McCoy’s lubricator was used on almost all of North America’s railways.

But that wasn’t his only invention. McCoy developed and patented over 50 more products. Most of these had to do with lubrication and the railway, but he had other inventions including:

  • folding ironing boards
  • lawn sprinklers
  • enhanced heels for shoes

Like many other black inventors and people of colour, McCoy faced racism and exclusion. Despite this, his career was incredibly successful and it didn’t stop him from revolutionizing the steam engine and transportation industries with his inventions. 

Featured Image – Title: Elijah McCoy. SourceNew York Public Library; image resized and cropped