Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Ontario, Canada. He was the son of fugitive slaves who escaped slavery from Kentucky to safety and freedom in Ontario. They returned to the U.S. in 1847 and settled in Michigan.
As a young boy, Elijah was often found taking things apart and putting them back together again. Realizing Elijah had some special skills, his parents saved enough money to send him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied mechanical engineering. After finishing his studies as a “master mechanic and engineer” he returned to the United States which had just seen the end of the Civil War — and the emergence of the “Emancipation Proclamation.”
He returned as a certified mechanical engineer but found it difficult to find work. He accepted a job as a fireman for the railroad oiling various working parts of the trains. The oiling had to be done frequently and required the train to stop.
A very boring job that allowed him time to think, which lead him to his curiosity on the challenges of self-lubrication for machines. He began to develop and test his ideas for automatic lubrication.
In 1872, he developed an automatic lubricator that spread oil evenly over a train’s engine while it was still moving, allowing trains to run for long periods of time without stopping, which saved both time and money.
He received the patent for the Lubricator Cup on May 27, 1873.
He continued to refine his devices and design new ones. He received over 60 patents over the course of his life and 50 of his patents dealt with lubricating systems. After the turn of the century, he was very popular among the African American communities and Booker T. Washington mentioned in his book Story of the Negro (1909) that Elijah produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time.
Because he didn’t not have the finances to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he usually assigned his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors. Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career. He formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his devices.
And to this day, the popular expression, “the real McCoy” typically meaning the real thing, has been associated with Elijah McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers looking to avoid inferior copies would request it by name, and inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system”. Elijah makes reference to it in his biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame. But many historians and journalist are not optimistic about the real reference describing Mr. McCoy’s invention. But it really doesn’t matter because the real deal is that he DID invent a lubrication device that outshined all others on the market.
He died in Detroit on October 10, 1929, at the age of 85.