McCoy was born free in Ontario, Canada, to parents George and Mildred, slaves who escaped Kentucky and fled to the Far North by way of the Underground Railroad. One of 12 children, McCoy’s family settled back in the States in 1847 in Michigan. As a teenager, McCoy was trained in Scotland as an apprentice engineer but was unable to land coveted jobs due to racism. Out of necessity, McCoy worked for the Michigan Central Railroad as an oiler and fireman.
McCoy’s time on the railroad gave him the inspiration for his earlier inventions.
After observing how train axles were oiled, he invented a lubricating cup that distributed oil more efficiently and allowed trains to run longer without manual assistance. Gaining the first of his 57 patents for the cup, McCoy tweaked and worked on lubricating systems almost exclusively. He also branched out with designs for ironing boards, lawn sprinklers, and other machines.
Without the financial backing to produce his inventions, McCoy sold or assigned his patent rights to others. Lubricators bearing McCoy’s name would appear until 1920, toward the end of his fantastic career.
McCoy would create the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company to produce his lubricating machines and operated the company until his passing.
Historians often ignore McCoy’s significant contributions, saying that self-lubricating machines such as his inventions were already in place. While that fact has been proven accurate, there is no discounting the fact McCoy’s cup was an improvement upon the older designs.
And based on his high number of patents — 50 focused on lubrication — he was one of the most-prolific Black inventors of the early 20th Century.
Booker T. Washington recognized McCoy’s achievements in the book “Story Of The Negro” in 1909.
The phrase “the Real McCoy” is largely credited to the inventor, based on railroad workers wanting to use an authentic McCoy oil-cup distributor and asking for it by name.
It’s been said that the origin of the phrase is found in a Canadian novel titled “The Rise And Fall Of The Union” club, which printed in 1881. To this day, this has been accepted as the first occurrence of the expression and is used mostly as an idiom these days.
McCoy married twice, surviving both his wives. His second wife, Mary, died in 1922 after a car accident, where McCoy was severely injured. He would pass away in 1929 in the Eloise Infirmary in Detroit, Mich., on October 10th.
McCoy’s desire to use his training in an industry that saw him as a non-factor and his determination despite the barriers he’s faced is truly inspirational. McCoy earned the respect of his peers and he willed himself into a success story in a time when African Americans were still reeling from the insidious stranglehold of slavery.
McCoy’s legacy lives on in Detroit, with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office naming their first satellite location after the inventor in one of the country’s classiest moves last summer.
Happy Birthday and Rest In Powerful Peace, Elijah McCoy!