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Elijah McCoy (1844 - 1929)

Canadian-American inventor and engineer and possible source of the phrase, "the real McCoy”.

Elijah McCoy

Born in Ontario, Canada in May 1844 to parents who had escaped slavery in America, Elijah McCoy showed an early interest in mechanics and, aged 15, was sent to Scotland for an apprenticeship and to study mechanical engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

Facing prejudice

Following his time studying at Edinburgh, Elijah returned to the US to find work as a mechanical engineer. However, due to racial prejudice, he was denied skilled employment and instead became a fireman and oilman for the Michigan railway.

The manual nature of the work allowed Elijah time to think and he studied the inefficiencies surrounding the existing system of oiling axles. Realising that trains could be made more efficient, he invented a lubricating device that distributed oil evenly and automatically over the engine's moving parts, removing the need for trains to stop for maintenance.

The real McCoy

McCoy’s lubrication device was a huge success. It is said that when railroad engineers requested the device, they would ask for it by name to avoid being sold an inferior imitation. It is said that requests for “the real McCoy” became frequent, and that the phrase was later expanded to describe anything as the genuine article.

Despite the racial prejudice he faced, McCoy's achievements were recognised in his lifetime, however his name did not appear on the majority of the products that he devised. Instead, his legacy lives on in a phrase.

Prolific inventor

McCoy was a prolific inventor and his lubrication device was just one of over 60 patents he held for his creations and a number of his works will be familiar and still very much in use. McCoy’s quest to improve efficiency extended beyond his time working with trains. For example, when his wife needed an easier way to iron clothes, he developed a portable folding ironing board. The lawn sprinkler is another McCoy invention that is still very much in use today.

A talent recognised

Elijah died in Detroit, Michigan in October 1929, but the inventions of this ground-breaking Edinburgh alumnus live on. In 2001 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio and commemorative plaques mark his former home in Lincoln Avenue, Michigan and his first workshop in Ypsilanti.