You may be familiar with the term “the real McCoy”, a phrase often uttered to denote originality and quality. However, did you know that the term is a reference to one of the most illustrious African-American inventors of all-time?

Elijah McCoy, born May 2nd 1844, received some 57 patents for his inventions – the most famous of which was a cup which helped feed machine bearings with lubricating oil via a small tube. This lubricator was in such high demand that the term “real McCoy” was used by engineers looking to get their hands on the genuine article. However, this lubricator is but a touchstone in a remarkable life.

Escaping slavery

Elijah McCoy’s parents, George and Mildred, were slaves who had escaped the harsh political conditions of Kentucky, US, to elope to Canada via the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network designed to help free slaves from the oppression they faced.

Once settled in Canada, George McCoy enlisted with the British forces, and for his service he was awarded some 160 acres of land. By the time Elijah had reached the age of three, the McCoy family returned to the US to settle in Detroit, Michigan. As a young child, Elijah showed an aptitude for engineering, eschewing playtime with his 11 brothers and sisters, to instead experiment with machines and tools.

The young apprentice

Upon reaching the age of 15, Elijah McCoy travelled to Edinburgh, Scotland to undertake a mechanical engineering apprenticeship. At the time, Edinburgh was famous for its shipbuilding and was regarded as one of the world’s major ports.

Upon his return to America, McCoy – like other African-Americans of the time – endured racial discrimination which stood in the way of his ambitions to pursue a position appropriate to his educational and skill levels. Eventually, he took a role as a fireman at the central Michigan railroad, where he was responsible for fuelling the engines and lubricating the moving parts of trains.

At the time, one of the biggest problems with steam engines was their propensity to overheat, which meant time-consuming stops to re-lubricate and cool down. This inspired McCoy to develop an automatic lubricator which helped to improve transit.

Elijah McCoy

A true trailblazer

However, McCoy’s ingenious invention wasn’t solely the preserve of the railroads – he also developed versions of the lubricator for use in mining equipment, oil-drilling machinery and construction tools. He is regarded as having improved efficiency in a huge variety of fields. By 1920, McCoy had formed his own company with the intention of producing his own products, instead of licensing his designs to others.

Later life and legacy

In his later years, McCoy struggled with his finances, and endured a mental and physical breakdown. He passed away from senile dementia on October 10, 1929.

Despite the problems which plagued his senior life, Elijah McCoy left a strong and lasting legacy on the African-American community and the wider engineering community as a whole, with the Elijah J. McCoy Midwest Patent & Trademark Office of Detroit being unveiled in his honour. In 2001, he was posthumously inducted into the US Inventors’ Hall of Fame.