The Real McCoy


The achievements of African American inventor Elijah McCoy should be more widely known, not least because his name is the origin of the saying, 'The real McCoy'.

He was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, Canada, to parents who had fled slavery in Kentucky, via the Underground Railroad. A few years later the family crossed the border to live in Michigan. From a young age, Elijah McCoy showed a strong interest in mechanics. When he was 15, his parents arranged for him to have a mechanical engineering apprenticeship in Scotland. He returned to Michigan after becoming certified as a mechanical engineer.

Sadly but unsurprisingly, McCoy was unable to find work as an engineer in the United States, black Americans being barred from skilled professional positions regardless of their training or qualifications. He accepted a position as a fireman and oiler for the Michigan Central Railroad where he developed several major inventions. His first came after his analysis of the inefficiencies in the existing system of oiling axles enabled him to invent a lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over the engine's moving parts. He obtained a patent for this invention, which allowed trains to run continuously for long periods of time without pausing for maintenance.

McCoy went on to receive nearly 60 patents over the course of his life including those for an ironing board and lawn sprinkler. Lacking the capital with which to manufacture his lubricators in large numbers, he assigned most of his patent rights to his employers or sold them to investors, only starting his own company to produce lubricators bearing his name towards the end of his life. Such was the quality of his products that those in the know only wanted his products, or in other words, 'The real McCoy'.

Paul Hensby