Elijah McCoy: The Real Deal

Inventor and engineer Elijah J. McCoy always had his sights set on improvement. He wanted things to work better and be better which led him to literally create instruments and products that solved problems. McCoy was born in May 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to George and Mildred Goins McCoy. The McCoys were fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In 1847, the large family returned to the United States, settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Beginning at a young age, Elijah McCoy showed a strong interest in mechanics. His parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. He returned home to Michigan after becoming certified as a mechanical engineer.

Despite his qualifications, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer in the United States due to racial barriers; skilled professional positions were not available for African Americans at the time, regardless of their training or background. McCoy accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this line of work that he developed his first major inventions. After studying the inefficiencies inherent in the existing system of oiling axles, McCoy invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine’s moving parts. He obtained a patent for this invention, which allowed trains to run continuously for long periods of time without pausing for maintenance.

McCoy continued to refine his devices, receiving nearly 60 patents over the course of his life. While the majority of his inventions related to lubrication systems, he also developed designs for an ironing board, a lawn sprinkler, and other machines.

The popular expression, “The Real McCoy” typically refers to the real thing or something authentic. It 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”. This theory is mentioned in Elijah McCoy’s biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Although McCoy’s achievements were recognized in his own time, his name did not appear on the majority of the products that he devised. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he …