Born in Colchester, Ontario, Elijah McCoy showed an early interest in machines and tools and an aptitude for mechanics. At a time when it was difficult for Black people to obtain training in the United States, his parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering.
Upon his return to North America, he took a job as a fireman with the railroad in Michigan. The “fireman” was the person who shovelled the coal to power the locomotive and who lubricated the moving parts during frequent stops. Elijah soon saw that he could put his knowledge and education to work by improving this lubricating process. He developed and patented a particular type of lubricating cup that dripped oil onto the moving parts of a train while it was in motion.
That was just one of the more than 50 products he developed and patented including the ironing board, which be allegedly invented in response to his wife’s desire for an easier way to iron clothes. McCoy held patents, not just in Canada and the U.S. but also in France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Russia.