Elijah McCoy's inventions list includes 57 patents and the 'Real McCoy'

Bruno Cooke May 2, 2022
Elijah McCoy's inventions list includes 57 patents and the 'Real McCoy'
Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

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Canadian engineer Elijah McCoy, whom Google Doodle is celebrating today (2 May 2022), is best known as the inventor of a lubrication system vital to steam engines, as well as lending his name to the phrase, “The real McCoy”. But his list of inventions doesn’t end there. Here’s as comprehensive a list of his inventions as we could find, including the portable ironing board and lawn sprinkler.

What did Elijah McCoy invent that made people start saying ‘The real McCoy’?

The popular expression, “The real McCoy”, comes from one of Elijah’s inventions – namely, his oil-drip cup. 

McCoy was Canadian but qualified as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. Afterwards, he relocated to Michigan, where he found work as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. 

His duties included lubricating engine parts. After studying the existing system for oiling axles, which at the time required the train to stop and restart, he invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine’s moving parts.

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Looking to avoid inferior copies of Elijah McCoy’s ingenuity, railroad engineers would request it by name – at least, so goes one story. If a train was equipped with “the real McCoy system” for lubrication, it was deemed to be of good quality.

But Elijah McCoy’s list of inventions and patents doesn’t end there

The Centre for History of Physics’ African American Inventors Patent List includes nine unique patents filed by Elijah McCoy before he died in 1929.

The first is from 1872 – he was just 28 years old at the time. It is US patent number 129,843, “Improvement in lubricators for steam-engines”.

“The nature of my invention consists in the construction and arrangement of a lubricator for steam-cylinders”, he wrote in his patent application

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Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images

Eight more of Elijah McCoy’s patents were approved in 1883 (“Lubricator”), 1888 (another Lubricator), 1891 (“Dope Cup”), 1892 (“Lubricator”, again), 1898 (“Oil Cup”), 1908 (“Eraser”), 1915 (“Tread for Tires”) and 1925 (“Rubber Heel”).

Not all of McCoy’s inventions were to do with lubricating engine parts

In total, Elijah McCoy filed 57 US patents. Most, but not all, related to the railway.

Elijah McCoy’s “Rubber Heel” patent, from 1925 – possibly his last, approved four years before his death – “revolutionised the shoe making industry”, writes Mezlan

After long days on the railroad, his feet would hurt. So he started taking bits of rubber flooring and nailing it inside his shoes. This made them more comfortable over long periods of time, but also made the shoes last longer.

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It wasn’t the first time people had thought to put rubber in their shoes. Irish-American pressman Humphrey O’Sullivan invented the rubber heel in 1896, and patented it in 1899. But McCoy improved upon it.

Another of his contributions was an improvement upon the ironing board; in 1899, he patented the first ever lawn sprinkler; and in 1916, age 72, he patented the “graphite lubricator”, a mixture of graphite and oil that worked well in the “superheater” locomotives of the period.

He died in 1929 at the age of 85. His body lies in Detroit Memorial Park East in Warren, Michigan.

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.