NPR reports McCoy’s parents escaped slavery in Kentucky using the Underground Railroad, before settling in Canada and giving birth to Elijah in 1844. At the age of 25, McCoy traveled to Scotland to study mechanical engineering, however, when he returned to Michigan where his parents relocated, he couldn’t get a job due to his race.
As a result, McCoy ended up working as a fireman for the Central Michigan Railroad, where one of his jobs included relubricating engine components. At the time, engines had to be stopped, lubricated, then restarted again, which was wildly inefficient.
That led McCoy to his first big idea, an automatic lubricator that kept engines oiled while in operation. The inventor patented the automatic lubricator in 1872. The innovation became an instant smash hit and the lubricator quickly found its way into “long-distance locomotives, transatlantic ships, and factory machines,” according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
However, the invention also led to a wide range of knockoff products. It is suspected, although not confirmed, that in order to avoid knock-offs, customers would request “the real McCoy,” a term still used today to reflect authenticity when purchasing a product.
McCoy obtained more than 50 patients during his career, most of which had t6o deal with lubricating systems. Additionally, McCoy also invented a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.
McCoy lived to the age of 85 in what is now known as Westland, Michigan in 1929 due to injuries resulting from a car crash seven years earlier that took the life of his wife Mary. The city of Detroit has recognized the inventor with several historical markers across the city including at the site of his home and his first workshop.
In 2001, McCoy was elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Virginia.