Elijah J. McCoy
March 27, 1843, or May 2, 1843 or 1844 - October 10, 1929

Frequently, if people want to make sure to get "the real thing" -- a quality product or service -- they ask for "the real McCoy." It's not certain where this phrase comes from, but many believe it started with Elijah McCoy, one of the most prolific inventors in American history. In his lifetime, McCoy patented more than 50 inventions, none more famous than his automatic oil cup, which eventually became standard equipment on most locomotives and heavy machinery.

While much of Elijah McCoy's early life is unknown, we do know he was African-Canadian, born in the early 1840's. Most sources list May 2, 1843 (or 1844) as his birthdate, though there are other sources which give a March 27, 1843 date. The inventor was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. His parents, George and Mildred McCoy (nee Goins) were former slaves who had fled Kentucky for Canada on the underground railroad. Elijah's father was awarded 160 acres of land for his service with the British army. The family returned to the U.S. when Elijah was three, settling in Detroit, where he had eleven brothers and sisters.

At the age of fifteen, Elijah McCoy served a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, Scotland. Afterwards, he returned to Michigan to pursue a position in his field. However, the only job he found was that of a locomotive fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. The fireman on a train was responsible for fueling the steam engine and the oiler lubricated the engine's moving parts as well as the train's axles and bearings. Because of his training, he was able to identify and solve the problems of engine lubrication and overheating. At that time, trains needed to periodically stop and be lubricated, to prevent overheating.

In a home-based machine shop, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and boats. For this he obtained his first patent, "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines" (U.S. Patent 129,843), on July 23, 1872. It relied on a piston set within an oil-filled container. Steam pressure pushed on the piston and thereby drove the oil into channels that carried it to the engine's operating parts. He took his invention to officials of the Michigan Central Railroad and received their support. Installed on operating locomotives, it provided lubrication that was more regular and even than could be achieved by the old method of using an oilcan during intermittent stops. This was a boon for railroads, allowing trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance. McCoy's lubricating cup proved adaptable to other types of steam engines, which were used in factories and at sea. Versions of this cup became standard components on many types of heavy machinery, entering service on railways of the West, on Great Lakes steamships, and even on transatlantic liners.

McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones, and after the turn of the century attracted notice among his African-American contemporaries. Booker T. Washington in Story of the Negro (1909) recognized him as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time. This output ultimately propelled McCoy to a heroic status in the African American community which has persisted to this day. He continued to invent until late in life, obtaining as many as 57 patents mostly related to lubrication, but also including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.

While McCoy's inventions made millions of dollars, little of this money reached his pockets. Lacking the capital with which to build his inventions in large numbers, he sold many of his patent rights to well-heeled investors. In return, he was given only the modest sums that allowed him to continue his work. Lubricators with the McCoy name were not manufactured until 1920, near the end of his career, when he formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.

Personal Life

McCoy married Ann Elizabeth Stewart in 1868; she died four years later. He remarried the next year to Mary Eleanor Delaney and moved to Detroit. This marriage would last half a century, but did not produce any children. Mary was one of the founders of the Phillis Wheatley Home for Aged Colored Ladies in 1898.

Tragedy struck the McCoys in 1922 with a car accident that killed Elijah's second wife Mary. Elijah McCoy eventually died in Detroit in 1929 at the age of 86. still suffering from injuries from the car accident seven years earlier that killed his second wife. McCoy had been a resident of the Eloise Hospital, a Sanatorium (also known as the Michigan State Asylum), before his death, suffering from dementia.

The Real McCoy

In reviewing the life of Elijah McCoy, it is often asserted that railroad purchasing agents commonly insisted on buying "the real McCoy." In the time of Elijah McCoy's lubricator there were many other inventors offering similar lubricators that competed with his. Most agents preferred McCoy's and would accept no substitutes. Many of these authors assert that the phrase "real McCoy" passed out of the specialized world of railroad engineering and entered general usage, where it came to mean "the genuine article."

There is much debate today as to whether the term "Real McCoy" comes from Elijah McCoy's lubricator or not. Regardless, Elijah McCoy's contribution has helped to unite a country and ultimately the world, with his improvements to modern travel.

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