Black History Month: Elijah McCoy (1844-1929) & Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

This week for Black History Month, we wanted to showcase some of the inventors from our local Michigan and California communities.

Elijah McCoy was born in Canada in 1844 to fugitive slaves who escaped from Kentucky via the Underground Railroad. Given McCoy’s aptitude in the mechanics of devices, his parents sent him to Scotland at the age of 15 to study mechanical engineering. After finishing his studies as a “master mechanic and engineer,” McCoy returned to the United States and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Unable to find engineering work because skilled professional positions were not available to African Americans, McCoy worked as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. While there, in 1872 McCoy invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil such that trains could run for long periods without stopping, increasing the efficiency and profitability of locomotives.  He was issued his first patent for the device in 1873. Because of the high quality of McCoy’s products, copycat devices were rejected by railway engineers who instead requested “the real McCoy.” McCoy later created his own manufacturing company and acquired 57 patents; most related to lubrication systems, but he also designed an ironing board and lawn sprinkler system. The USPTO satellite office in Detroit, Michigan is named after McCoy.

Born in 1942 in Harlem, Dr. Patricia Bath was a pioneer in ophthalmology. Her intellect apparent from an early age, she graduated high school in just two years. Dr. Bath first gained notoriety at 16 after deriving a mathematical equation for predicting cancer cell growth during a summer program, the National Science Foundation at Yeshiva University. Dr. Bath earned a medical degree from Howard University by the age of 26. Throughout her medical career, Dr. Bath blazed a path of firsts in her field. In 1973, she was the first African American to complete a residency in ophthalmology. Two years later, she was the first African American female surgeon at the UCLA Medical Center and the first female appointed to the faculty in the Department of Ophthalmology at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute. In 1988, Dr. Bath was the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent for the Laserphaco Probe, a widely used device utilizing laser technology for a less invasive and more precise treatment of cataracts. With the Laserphaco Probe, Dr. Bath was able to restore the sight of individuals blinded for over 30 years.