Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 (or 1843) a free man in Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred McCoy who escaped enslavement in Kentucky, USA by way of the Underground Railroad. Eventually, at the age of 11, he and his family moved back to the U.S. and settled in Michigan where his father became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad helping other enslaved Africans escape to Canada. Though they were free, McCoy did not have full access to the level of education George felt was appropriate for his clever son. George and Mildred sent Elijah to Scotland when he was 15 for an apprenticeship. Seven years later, after the Civil War, he returned to Michigan as a master mechanic and engineer. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, government and institutional policies and societal barriers limited his success despite the fact that he was a free man.
Unable to get a job as an engineer, he gained employment as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad. Ironically, the discrimination that put him in an inferior position, may have cemented his name in history. As an oiler he became familiar with the inefficiency of lubricating locomotives. Trains had to stop on route periodically to get lubrication causing significant time lost. McCoy saw this issue first hand and came up with an idea that helped revolutionize locomotion. In his father’s barn and eventually his own machine shop, McCoy developed a steam-powered, automatic lubricating device that allowed trains to travel longer distances faster and without stopping. McCoy patented his “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” in 1872. Other automatic lubrication devices had been developed but his invention gained significant popularity and imitations arose. This led to the possibly legendary attribution of the phrase “the real McCoy” to Elijah’s inventions. Engineers wary of inferior products are said to have asked for “the real McCoy” to be installed on their engines.
While the the phrase is not definitively attributed to this McCoy, it has since taken over the popular attribution and has kept Elijah’s accomplishment from fading into obscurity. Unfortunately, McCoy was unable to fully benefit from the popularity of his invention and subsequent improvements. He did not have the capital to manufacture the devices himself until later in his career. Almost 50 years after the first patent, the first McCoy stamped lubricators were manufactured by the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920. By the end of his life he had 57 patents to his name, 50 were associated with lubrication, but others included a foldable ironing board and a turtle shaped lawn sprinkler. He died in 1929 at the age of 85 (or 86) from complications related to a car accident that killed his wife seven years earlier.
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