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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Elijah the Inventor

As the railroad workers used to say, anything less than the best just wasn't "the real McCoy."

Elijah McCoy was born in 1843 in Colchester in the province of Ontario, Canada, where his parents had settled as fugitives from slavery. The family returned to the United States five years later and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Though poor as church mice, their hard work and thrifty habits eventually paid off. Elijah was sent to Scotland at age 15 to study mechanical engineering, and he returned afterward to work for the Michigan Central Railroad.

Locomotives at the time overheated easily, and trains were forced to stop often to apply oil to engine parts to reduce friction. McCoy invented a “lubricating cup” that applied the oil without the need to halt the journey. He secured a patent for it in 1872 and continued to improve the device for years thereafter.

“Others tried to imitate McCoy’s invention, but he kept ahead of them with his superior engineering skills,” writes historian Burton Folsom, Jr. “His standard of quality was so high that to separate his lubricating cup from cheaper imitations it became known as ‘the real McCoy,’ which many believe to be the origin of the famous phrase. The grateful management of the Michigan Central promoted McCoy and honored him as a teacher and innovator for the railroad.”

That 1872 patent was the first of 57 he picked up during a long and productive life. When he was 77, he earned one for an improved airbrake lubricator; at age 80, he patented a vehicle wheel tire. He founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1920 to produce and market his inventions and died in 1929 at the ripe old age of 86, a well-loved and celebrated achiever.

More stories about men and women like Elijah McCoy can be found in Lawrence W. Reed’s new book “Real Heroes” available from the FEE Store.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is