The National Business League

Founded by Dr. Booker T. Washington – August 23, 1900


Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy

Inventor of the automatic engine lubricator for trains

Receiving his first patent in 1872, Elijah McCoy made rail travel safer and easier for both workers and passengers. McCoy invented an “improvement in lubricators for steam engines,” which automatically dispensed oil. Before his invention, trains would have to stop to oil the axles and bearings, something he learned first-hand while working for the Michigan Central Railroad.

McCoy was born in Canada in 1844, to parents who had fled slavery. They eventually settled as farmers in Michigan, where McCoy became interested in mechanics. He left home for Scotland at the age of 15, where he was educated in mechanical engineering. When he returned to the United States, McCoy found no employer willing to hire an African American engineer, despite his excellent training. Instead, he took a job as an oil- and fireman, where part of his duties was to lubricate engine parts. This difficult work paid off in the end; McCoy combined his experience as a worker with his education as an engineer to come up with his new and useful invention.

Like many inventors, McCoy continued to improve on his invention even after receiving his patent and achieving commercial success. His technology was eventually adapted in steamships and factory machines in addition to locomotives. When the first of the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s regional offices opened in Detroit in 2012, the agency named it for McCoy, choosing to honor an inventor that hailed from the region and overcame barriers to change the world.