Elijah J. McCoy was born on May 2, 1844. He was an African American inventor and his work may have been the beginning of the phrase the “real McCoy.”
Born in Colchester, Canada, Elijah McCoy was one of 12 children of a family of runaway slaves who used the Underground Railroad to escape from Kentucky. When he was 15, McCoy’s parents sent him to study mechanical engineering in Edinburgh, Scotland, because that training was impossible for Blacks to get in the United States.
After finishing his schooling, McCoy returned to the United States with the hope of obtaining an engineering job.
He was forced to accept a job as a locomotive fireman with the Michigan Central Railroad, a position that required that he shovel coal into the engine and apply oil in the moving parts of the machine.
McCoy found the work did not challenge him and sought other more productive forms of occupation. It had long been considered a problem that railroad engines were unable to lubricate themselves.
In his free time, McCoy began to consider solutions to this problem, and after two years, he developed the “lubricating cup” for steam engines. The cup allowed for the continuous flow of oil on the gears, doing away with the necessity of shutting down the machine. McCoy received a patent for his lubricating device in 1872. The lubricating cup was essential to industries throughout the world, and those in possession of the valuable cup were said to have “the real McCoy.”
Elijah McCoy also obtained patents for an automatic sprinkler and an ironing table, eventually acquiring 58 patents in his lifetime.