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​Elijah McCoy - biography 

The Real McCoy 

Elijah J. McCoy   1843-1929








Elijah McCoy was a mechanical engineer and the inventor of a revolutionary device which made it possible to lubricate the moving parts of a machine while it was operating.

McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, in 1843.  His parents, George and Mildred McCoy, had escaped as slaves from Kentucky and fled to Canada, by way of the Underground Railroad.  McCoy's father labored endlessly to send his son aboard to obtain a good education.  At age 15 young McCoy went to Edinburgh, Scotland to study.  Upon completion of his studies in Scotland, he returned to the United States well-trained and eager to begin his career in engineering.

Although his credentials were extraordinary, he was repeatedly denied a position in engineering because of his race.  Finally, accepting a job as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad, he had the menial task of shoveling coal into the engine and oiling all of the train's moving parts.  Bored with this procedure, he asked himself; "Why cant this train lubricate itself?"  This question prompted McCoy to begin experimenting with a mechanical self-lubricating device.

In 1870, McCoy gained instant fame in the field of mechanical engineering.  He started the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan.  In this shop, he invented the first automatic lubricator, called the "lubricator cup,"  and was granted a United States patent on July 2, 1872.  His device allowed small amounts of oil to drip continuously onto the moving parts of a machine while it was in operation.  Prior to his invention, all motorized machinery had to be periodically brought to a complete stop so that lubricants could be applied by hand.  McCoy's lubricator cup became an extremely important invention to industry because it reduced time and labor costs significantly, and increased business profits substantially.

In time, anyone who owned a self-lubricating machine bragged of having the "Real McCoy," an expression that is still used today to signify genuine quality.  McCoy soon improved upon this first model with more sophisticated ones.  For the next twenty-five years, he made various changes and patented more than 50 different automatic lubricators.  Later he specialized in lubricating devices for special kinds of machinery such as air brakes and steam engines.

Invitations soon started to pour in from large industries, here and abroad, asking McCoy to serve as a consultant or lecturer.  Although major industrialists requested his services and expertise in the field, many were not aware of his race.  They were often quite surprised to learn that this ingenious invention was conceived by a Black man.  There were times when they would cancel McCoy's scheduled appearances because of racial prejudice, some even refused to use the lubricator they so badly needed.

Elijah McCoy died in Detroit, Michigan, at age 85, in 1929.  "The Real McCoy" process is still employed in our modern day machinery such as automobiles, locomotives, rockets, ships, and a vast number of other machines.  McCoy's invention will always be remembered for modernizing the industrial world.


Excerpt from A Salute to Black Scientists and Inventors.


This is only a summary of the life of Elijah "The Real McCoy" McCoy.