Great Engineers & Scientists Blog

Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

So who do you think of when you hear "Great Engineer"? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add him or her to the pantheon. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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Elijah McCoy: The Real Deal

Posted February 18, 2010 9:30 AM by Steve Melito

Elijah McCoy was a Canadian-born inventor and engineer who earned a number of U.S. patents, including one for the improvement of lubricators in steam engines. According to some accounts, he is the source of the phrase "the real McCoy" – an idiom meaning "the real thing" or "the genuine article".

Early Life

Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1843 in Colchester, Ontario. The son of slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada, McCoy later moved with his family to Ypsilanti, Michigan. At age 15, he journeyed to Scotland to study mechanical engineering. Upon graduation, he returned to The Wolverine State and worked as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad.

Working on the Railroad

Racism may have kept Elijah McCoy from finding work as a mechanical engineer, but his ingenuity was unstoppable. As a railroad fireman, he was responsible for lubricating engine parts. Steam engines required frequent lubrication, and this manual maintenance activity required frequent downtime. Although automatic oilers such as the displacement lubricator had been patented previously, McCoy improved the technology.

Steam Engine Success

Elijah McCoy's U.S. Patent 129843 described "the construction and arrangement of a lubricator for steam-cylinders". His device consisted of an oil cup, cover, and thumb screw; a hollow, downward-projecting stem; and a tube running from the stem through the center of the cup. Additional components included a rod and valve within the tube, and a piston or disk within the stem. "When the steam presses upon the piston," McCoy's patent application explained, "the valve rises and allows the oil or other lubricating material to pass out".

Patents and Promise

McCoy's 1872 patent for "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines" was just one of many U.S. patents that this prolific African-Canadian inventor received. Although much of his work involved improvements to lubrication, he also invented a folding iron board and a lawn sprinkler. According to Booker T. Washington's 1909 history, Story of the Negro: The Rise of the Race from Slavery, Elijah McCoy held more patents than any other African-American inventor.

The Real McCoy

Lacking the capital to manufacture his own inventions, Elijah McCoy sold some of his patent rights to investors. Later, after forming the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920, the aging inventor produced automatic lubricators himself. Although historians and lexicographers disagree about the origins of the phrase "the real McCoy," some argue that railroad engineers who sought to avoid inferior copies would inquire whether a locomotive was fitted with "the real McCoy".



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