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Elijah McCoy (1844-1929)

Automatic Oil Cup

Frequently, if people want to make sure to get "the real thing" -- a quality product or service -- they ask for "the real McCoy." It's not certain where this phrase comes from, but many believe it started with Elijah McCoy, one of the most prolific inventors in American history.

In his lifetime, McCoy patented more than 50 inventions, none more famous than his automatic oil cup, which eventually became standard equipment on most locomotives and heavy machinery.

McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario in 1843 to American parents who had traveled on the Underground Railroad in order to escape slavery in Kentuky. Early in life, Elijah McCoy showed an aptitude and interest in the way mechanical devices worked. McCoy's parents saw that their son had a special talent and sent him to study in Scotland, where he achieved the title of "master mechanic and engineer." McCoy then went to America to look for a job as an engineer, but in the 1860s, professional jobs were usually not available to African-Americans. McCoy settled for a job as a fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad.

His job was to walk the length of the train, oiling its axles, bearings and other moving parts regularly. McCoy quickly realized that his job could be done more efficiently, so he developed a lubricating cup that would automatically drip oil onto moving parts.

McCoy got his first patent for the device, which enabled trains to travel continuously without having to stop for oiling.

There were many imitations of McCoy's oil cup, but engineers knew that the model based on McCoy's design was the best of its kind. So knowledgeable engineers began asking for McCoy's invention by name.

[May 1996]

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