Happy Birthday, Elijah McCoy

May 2, 2024

Elijah McCoy was a Canadian-American engineer best known for inventing a steam engine lubrication system that transformed the railroad industry. A supposed source of the phrase “the real McCoy”, his impact was significant enough to land him a place in the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame. Hop on board with us as we celebrate Elijah McCoy’s birthday with a quick trip through his life and work.

Early Life and Education

McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario, to George and Mildred Goins McCoy. Well before his birth, his parents escaped enslavement in Kentucky and managed to travel the Underground Railroad north to Canada. They returned to the United States before sending McCoy to Scotland to apprentice and study as a mechanical engineer in Edinburgh. He completed his studies there and returned to his family in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1866.

A black-and-white photograph of Elijah McCoy.
Elijah McCoy, circa 1890. Image by Ypsilanti Historical Society and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED, via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite his experience and education, McCoy was unable to find a position as an engineer (likely due to discriminatory hiring practices) and settled in as a fireman and oiler at the nearby Michigan Central Railroad. These roles had McCoy shoveling coal into the firebox of the steam engine’s cab as well as oiling the axles, bearings, and other moving parts of the train. In his spare time, he worked in his home-based machine shop and developed inventions and improvements to make his life — and, ultimately, the life of everyone else in the transportation industry — easier. It was in this shop that McCoy had his breakthrough.

Inventing and Patenting

Locomotive steam engines required lubrication to avoid overheating, which forced the trains to stop periodically to be manually oiled — an obvious and frustrating inefficiency. In a career-defining moment, McCoy developed and patented an automatic lubricator for these engines that could be used while the train was moving. This invention, sometimes referred to as the “oil-drip cup”, quickly changed the industry: The automatic oiling technology allowed for greater profits and efficiency and, by the end of the 19th century, was in use in nearly all railroads throughout the United States and Canada.

A black-and-white illustration of Elijah McCoy's automatic lubricator for engines.
Elijah McCoy, Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines, U.S. patent 129,843 (page 1 out of 2), patented July 23, 1872. This drawing, similar to the contents of other United States patents, is in the public domain.

McCoy’s lubricator systems became so ubiquitous that some claim they are the source of the term “the real McCoy”. In the years after his device was patented, many companies created their own, generally less effective versions of the oil-drip cup. The story goes that when train engineers were asking about the engines they were going to drive, they would ask if the lubrication system was “the real McCoy”, hoping to hear that an effective, automatic oiling system was in place. While others dispute this claim, the story of McCoy’s oil-drip cups is one of the earliest possible explanations of the saying.

Later Life and Legacy

The success of this invention allowed McCoy to self-fund his research and launch his career as an inventor. He settled in Detroit, Michigan, in 1882 and worked as a consultant to a variety of engineering firms while producing improvements to his original lubricator design. Including the various iterations of the oil-drip cup, McCoy filed 57 U.S. patents in his lifetime. Some of the more notable of these inventions were:

The Michigan Central Railroad eventually promoted McCoy to be an instructor in the use of his inventions, and he even acted as a consultant to the wider railroad industry on patent matters. He established the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in 1920 before a car accident in 1922 left him with severe health problems. His impact and influence were cemented many years after his death in 2001, when McCoy was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Further Reading

Throughout his life, McCoy aimed to improve the way his world worked through inventions.


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Telkom University
Telkom University
June 22, 2024

What significant achievements did McCoy make in his home-based machine shop?