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Elijah McCoy was born on May 2, 1844, in Colchester, Ontario. He was the son of two former slaves who escaped from Kentucky to Canada through the use of the Underground Railroad. From an early age, Elijah was fascinated with taking things apart and putting them back together. His parents saved their money and sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he served a formal apprenticeship and became a qualified mechanical engineer.
Elijah came to the United States after the Civil War and landed a job as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad, with a secondary duty of oiling the train’s moving parts. This required that the train be shut down periodically with the oilmen checking to make sure all parts were well greased—a process that cost money, time and manpower.
McCoy began to work on self-lubrication devices. In 1872, he developed a small, oil-filled container with an adjustable stop-cock that was capable of automatically oiling moving parts while the machinery was still in motion. No longer did railroad engines have to stop every few miles while a workman manually oiled all of the parts.
McCoy’s invention literally revolutionized the railroad industry and continuously running factory machinery. His inventions were so reliable that customers, recognizing that McCoy’s competitors would try to duplicate his products, asked, “Is this the real McCoy?” He received in excess of 57 patents in his lifetime, and his devices were used for years on both stationary and locomotive machinery—especially the great railway locomotives—and on steamships and in factories around the world.
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Photo copyright: Creative Commons; Image rights: Ypsilanti Historical Society
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