Image reproduced courtesy of the Ypsilanti Historical Society
By Esme Allman
Elijah McCoy, born in 1843/1844 in Ontario, Canada was best known as an inventor and engineer. McCoy trained in engineering in Edinburgh and returned to North America in the 1860s. McCoy’s life spanned up until 1929 and he continued developing his craft into his eighties. McCoy and his inventions offer reason to challenge and reconfigure our understandings about the contributions of black people to globally-used technologies in the mid-nineteenth century. Against the backdrop of global imperial expansion, McCoy’s life was shaped by the slave trade and the growing North American abolitionist movement.
McCoy’s early life
George and Emilia McCoy, his parents, were both escaped slaves who were forced to work on a plantation in Kentucky. George and Emilia travelled along the underground railroads to Ontario, where the family eventually settled. As a member of the rebel army in Lower Canada’s 1837 Rebel Wars, George McCoy was rewarded with 160 acres of land for his combatant services. The awarded land underpinned the McCoy family’s income and provided them with a home to raise Elijah. Elijah McCoy was born in 1843/1844 and grew up with his parents in Ontario. His family highlighted one example of the fugitive masses who sought place and space beyond the United States borders, where communities took refuge from anti-black chattel slavery. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act triggered fear amongst freemen of the North as their status was now highly contentious and the risk of those (re)captured into slavery was increasingly likely. As a result, many, both fugitive slaves and freemen, emigrated from the United States: between fifteen and twenty thousand black people entered Canada from 1850 to 1860, increasing Canada’s already strong black population to nearly 60,000. The conditions of the McCoy family’s early settlement in Ontario is speculative. It can be assumed George McCoy was driven both by the cause of French-Canadian Nationalists against British Canadian rule. It can also be assumed that fighting a part of the rebel army was a means to freedom like so many in the mid-nineteenth century attempted to do. The backdrop to Elijah McCoy’s upbringing brought to light the brutality and risk it meant to be Black in mid-1800s North America.
McCoy’s parents raised enough money for him to travel to Edinburgh at the age of 15, in 1859. He trained as an engineer in an apprenticeship based in Edinburgh and although there is no record of his matriculation, McCoy’s presence in the city had been noted in several letter exchanges. Between the announcement of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the end of the American Civil War in 1865, McCoy returned to the States, concluding his education in Scotland.
McCoy’s career in America
McCoy’s choice to return to North America was most likely fuelled by legislation passed that in theory ended chattel slavery and afforded citizenship to formerly enslaved people. McCoy relocated to Ypsilanti, Michigan to find work as a newly qualified engineer. Anti-black racism still very much permeated post-Civil War America and McCoy’s job opportunities. On his return, it was difficult for him to find employment and despite the fact he was highly skilled, he was offered low-skilled manually laborious work, taking up roles such as a fireman or oilman on Michigan Central Trains. However, McCoy used this a space to create and invent new ways of modifying and improving trains, which at the time faced the risk of fires and derailing. As he continued to experiment, McCoy ended up inventing an oil lubricant sometimes known as the “oil-drip-cup” at the age of 28. His invention changed train maintenance forever, eradicating the need for trains to stop their journey for oilmen to manually oil the train parts. McCoy’s automatic oiling technology was widely sought after because of its efficiency and its refined design which meant it worked better than competitor oil lubricant products. So much so, the saying “the real McCoy” is said to be linked to the fact his specific product was the preferable one.
McCoy used the money earned through his inventions to self-fund research. He patented over sixty of his inventions, gaining a fortune as his enterprise grew. In 1867 he married Ann Elizabeth Stewart, who died shortly after in 1872 at the age of 25. Later he married Mary Elenora Delany, whose parents were also fugitive slaves, and they moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1882. There, the couple enjoyed their fortune as well as local notoriety because of McCoy’s success. Mary McCoy became a part of a prestigious group called the Twentieth Century Club, a private women’s club based in the heart of the city.
The choice of McCoy to patent his inventions was significant in the immediate aftermath of slavery. To live and work amongst capitalist systems where black people had previously been removed from owning the means of production, licensing inventions was a way to protect his inventions. McCoy’s accumulated fortune speaks to the conditions of exceptionalism amongst a growing middle and upper class of black people. Despite this fact, E. Jenkins rightly highlights that “generally, historians of science have not recognized the contributions of Black scientists and inventors”, with McCoy being amongst the many listed.
Shortly after a motor accident, Mary McCoy died in 1923. Elijah McCoy himself died in destitution in 1929, after selling his assets in order to continue to invent. Amongst his inventions are the ironing board, the superheater, rubber shoe soles and tire designs. McCoy’s short stint as an engineering apprentice in Edinburgh shaped much of his later life, and although died having lost his fortune, Elijah McCoy dedicated himself to imagining a future made better by his inventions.
Anon., “Elijah McCoy Home Informational Site”, Developmental Idealism Studies, accessed 09/09/2019, [http://detroit1701.psc.isr.umich.edu/ElijahMcCoy.htm]
Anon., 2015, Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), The University of Edinburgh, accessed 09/09/2019 [https://www.ed.ac.uk/alumni/services/notable-alumni/alumni-in-history/elijah-mccoy]
Anon., This Week In Black History, Jet, vol. 97, no. 20, 24 Apr. 2000, p. 19. Gale General OneFile, accessed 09/09/2019 [https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A61934225/ITOF?u=ed_itw&sid=ITOF&xid=7aa7c935]
Eschner, Kat, 2017, “The Prolific Inventor Helped Give Us The Phrase “The Real McCoy”, Smithsonian Magazine, accessed 09/09/2019, [https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/prolific-inventor-helped-give-us-phrase-real-mccoy-180963059/]
Roach, Ronald, 2002, “On history and technology. (Editor’s Note).” Black Issues in Higher Education, vol. 19, no. 1, 6. Gale Academic OneFile, accessed 09/09/2019, [https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A84429922/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=373f850d]
Turner, Hilary, “Three brats, one hero”, Canadian Literature, 209 (2011), p. 141, accessed 09/09/2019 [https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A291616768/AONE?u=ed_itw&sid=AONE&xid=a601c450]