Black History Month: Elijah McCoy

Over the years, the railroads have benefited from a diverse workforce. Most people think of the Transcontinental Railroad as the most varied workgroup with Asians, primarily Chinese, providing the labor to build the railroad in the West. However, railroads have a much more varied history than that. For example, German and Irish immigrants provided a large part of the workforce in the North, while the South utilized slave and convict labor. Of course, railroads and Pullman Porters go hand in hand when examining railroad history as well. However, each week this month, we will highlight an African American inventor and his contribution to the railroads.

Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)

Elijah McCoy was born in Canada after his parents escaped slavery in Kentucky. At the age of 15, his parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied mechanical engineering.[1] Once he returned to the U.S., McCoy could not find work worthy of his education, so he became a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. McCoy fueled the steam engine and lubricated the engine’s moving parts in this position.

Railway locomotives at the time had to stop intermittently and be lubricated to prevent overheating. McCoy’s education in mechanical engineering allowed him to develop a system that automatically lubricated the engine while the train was moving. His patent stated this invention “provid[ed] for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine in order to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically.”[2] This advancement saved the railways precious time (and money) while moving people and goods across the nation.

McCoy’s success created many imitators as the lubricator moved into other industries such as shipping and on factory machines. As his reputation spread, buyers became wary of the cheap imitations and would ask for “the real McCoy.”[3] This phrase is still in use today; however, some are not convinced the term originates with Elijah McCoy.


[1] Mary Bellis, “Biography of Elijah McCoy, American Inventor,” ThoughtCo (ThoughtCo, January 24, 2021),

[2] Mary Bellis, “Biography of Elijah McCoy, American Inventor,” ThoughtCo (ThoughtCo, January 24, 2021),

[3] “NIHF Inductee Elijah McCoy Invented the Automatic Engine Lubricator,” NIHF Inductee Elijah McCoy Invented the Automatic Engine Lubricator (National Inventors Hall of Fame), accessed February 6, 2022,

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