Elijah J. McCoy, born May 2, 1844, was a Black Canadian–American inventor and engineer. McCoy was born to George and Mildred McCoy who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. In 1847, the family returned to the U.S., settling in Ypsilanti, Michigan. At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland for an apprenticeship and study. After some years he was certified in Scotland as a mechanical engineer. He rejoined his family in Michigan but could find work only as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad.
In a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti McCoy also did more highly skilled work, such as developing improvements and inventions. He invented an automatic lubricator for oiling the steam engines of locomotives and ships, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” (U.S. Patent 129,843). Lubricators were a boon for railroads as they enabled trains to run faster and more profitably with less need to stop for lubrication and maintenance.
McCoy continued to refine his devices and design new ones; 50 of his 57 patents dealt with lubricating systems. The popular expression “The real McCoy,” which typically means the real thing, has been associated with McCoy’s oil-drip cup invention. One theory is that railroad engineers would inquire if a locomotive was fitted with “the real McCoy system” in order to avoid inferior copies. This possible origin is mentioned as a legend in Elijah McCoy’s biography at the National Inventors Hall of Fame.