Elijah J. McCoy - Biography & Activities

Learn about inventor Elijah J. McCoy through a biography, discussion questions, and extension activities for all ages. This is a great resource for Black History Month.
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Elijah J. McCoy
Born: 5/2/1843
Birthplace: Colchester, Ontario, Canada

The son of former slaves from Kentucky who had escaped via the Underground Railroad to Canada, at 15 years of age Elijah McCoy traveled to Scotland seeking the educational opportunities from which blacks were excluded in the Americas. He trained in mechanical engineering and then moved to the United States, where he was denied engineering employment-again because he was of African descent. He instead took a job as a railroad fireman. At that time, locomotives needed to be shut down periodically to be lubricated to avoid overheating. The frequent stops prevented railroads from being profitable until McCoy developed the “lubricating cup” for steam engines, which kept locomotives constantly lubricated, preventing frequent stops and overheating. He patented the lubricating cup in 1872. It represented the most profitable of his more than 58 patents, which included a folding ironing board and an automatic sprinkler.

Died: 10/10/1929

Extension Activities

  • Draw one of McCoy's inventions and explain what it is used for.
  • Host a classroom science fair focusing on inventions.
  • Create a Fact Pyramid about an inventor or invention.
  • Design a machine that would make your life easier.
  • Research one of McCoy's patents, and write a report about the invention.
  • Research and write about mechanical engineering. What does a mechanical engineer do? How do you become one?

Discussion Questions:

  • What challenges did McCoy face because of his race? How would his life be different today?
  • How did McCoy's inventions revolutionize transportation and industrial production?
  • Ask students if they are familiar with the expression, "the real McCoy". Discuss its meaning as a class.
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