The three inventors of focus didn’t have many advantages from life in general. Certainly not what you would expect from men who went on to be groundbreaking inventors. Two were the children of escaped slaves, the third of mixed race at a time when this was entirely socially unacceptable. However, despite what their parents were able to provide for them, each man leveraged his ideas and intellect to spur progress and invent things that would change the world for the better.
Elijah McCoy’s great invention, the one that would secure his name in the American lexicon, was something that solved a common problem among all crews of trains – lubricating engine parts. In 1870 McCoy took a job with the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman – part of his duties included oiling the engine. Crews would often have to stop their locomotives, sometime for hours on end, and oil the engine to prevent overheating. This caused passenger and mail delays and stretched long locomotive travel times even longer. 3
McCoy thought of a way to eradicate this problem. As he said in his patent application, in flowery language, “To all whom it may concern: Be it known that I, ELIJAH MCCOY, of the city of Ypsilanti, in the county of Washtenaw and the state of Michigan, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Lubricators; and I do hereby declare that the following is a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawing and to the letters of reference marked thereon, which form a part of this specification.
“The nature of my invention consists in the construction and arrangement of a lubricator for steam-cylinders, as will be hereinafter more fully set forth.”
McCoy then set about explaining his incredibly simple but revolutionary device: A covered cup, containing lubricating oil, with a hollow stem at the bottom that had a valve that would be forced upward as steam pressure exerted force on the valve. When the steam opened the valve lubricating oil would drip out of the cup, dispensing oil to the engine parts requiring the oil.4
McCoy took a problem that had plagued engineers for decades and solved it with a device so simple yet so invaluable that competitors began to copy his invention, leading discerning people with a want for the true article to ask for “the Real McCoy”.5
As a 1903 The Colored American put it in an article about African-American inventors –
“At the head of the list stands the name of Elijah McCoy, of Detroit. He has succeeded in placing his lubricators on many of the steam-car and steamboat engines in the Northwest, and also on some of the Trans-Atlantic steamers. And these are said to net him a handsome royalty.”6