Elijah McCoy May 2, 1844 – October 10, 1929
Have you ever heard the saying, “the real McCoy”? That idiom refers to authenticity. It is an expression of appreciation for the quality of work produced by the inventor. No substitutes or imitations will be accepted when someone says, “I want the real McCoy.” After Elijah McCoy invented an oil cup that independently lubricated axels, most major railroad companies sought this invention. It allowed trains to travel long distances without needing to stop and be manually lubricated.
McCoy was born in Ontario, Canada after his parents fled slavery in Kentucky using the Underground Railroad. His parents moved the family back to the states when he was three, allowing McCoy and his siblings to be raised in Detroit, Michigan. McCoy completed a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Edinburgh, Scotland at age fifteen. But upon his return to the U.S. his qualifications were not valued because he was black. Due to racial segregation McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer. As a result he accepted a position as a fireman and oiler with Michigan Central Railroad. It was in this capacity that McCoy began to carve out his place in history.
Recognizing the deficiencies with lubrication methods, he invented an oilcan that independently lubricated machine parts. It was efficient, required less manpower and saved railroad companies lots of money. As with most groundbreaking inventions, third party companies attempted to mimic the function of McCoy’s lubricator but none could master it. Railroad companies far and wide began requesting “the Real McCoy.” This oil-lubricating can was just one of over five-dozen McCoy patents, including a design for an ironing board, and lawn sprinkler.