The son of fugitive slaves who escaped from Kentucky through the Underground Railroad, Elijah J. McCoy was born free on May 2, 1844 in Colchester, Ontario, Canada. Being one of twelve children and despite insurmountable obstacles in a time of prejudice and persecution, McCoy made several contributions to steam driven industry which live on to this day.
When McCoy was 3, his parents returned to the country which enslaved them but this time settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan (near Detroit). With a great deal of ingenuity and technical inclination evident at a young age, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to study engineering. He returned to Michigan in 1870 as a fully qualified engineer yet could only acquire work as a fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad. It was on the railroad that a Canadian born engineer, man of colour and son of slaves made a REAL mark on history.
At the time, steam locomotives would periodically need to be stopped and shut down for lubrication. McCoy quickly identified the need to solve this problem and invented an automatic steam engine lubrication device. He first patented the device in 1872 and several improved versions subsequently followed. McCoy's invention was an immediate success for the railroads as it allowed trains to be lubricated as they ran. Thus saving the railroads time and money by reducing maintenance stops. However, his invention could also be applied to most other steam engines including those used in ships.
His invention was of such quality and value that it was asked for by name. The phrase used to describe his steam lubricators, "The Real McCoy", is still in use today to describe a genuine, quality product. The small village of Colchester, Ontario had no tracks but two railroads (one underground and one above) carried an inspiration into the history books.