Born in Colchester, Ontario, to self-freed parents from Kentucky, Elijah McCoy received his higher education as a mechanical engineer in Scotland. After his training, he chose to live in Detroit, Michigan, where he became concerned about the injuries and deaths caused when workers attempted to lubricate moving machinery. Many of these workers were young Black boys employed in the position because they were small and agile. McCoy developed a self-lubricating device with a drip cup, which revolutionised the industry. The device allowed the gradual and constant release of oil, which allowed machines to work continuously without having to be stopped to be lubricated—and without anyone having to risk life and limb to apply oil while machines remained in operation. The device had a range of applications, from locomotives to industry.
McCoy’s first drip cup invention was patented on July 12, 1872. The drip cup device was so effective and so highly regarded that other manufacturers copied it. However, none worked as well as McCoy’s invention. Canadian and American railroaders asked for it by name as the “real McCoy,” giving rise to the expression denoting authenticity. McCoy went on to own his own firm. He filed 57 other patents in Canada and the United States, including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.