“THE REAL McCOY”
The end of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods was quickly followed by a tremendous increase in the exploitation of the nation’s resources. The quarter-century immediately before 1900 was also the period of the invention which helped to usher in the machine age. The essence of the machine age was the harnessing of steam energy to complicated devices with many moving parts. And, until the inventions of Elijah McCoy were added to the complicated machines, even the most efficient of operations had to be halted until the machines were oiled to reduce the wear and tear of friction.
Elijah McCoy was a black inventor who was awarded over fifty-seven patents, mostly for various kinds of steam cylinder lubricators. His basic invention, the “drip cup,” has been described as a “key device in perfecting the over-all lubrication system used in large industry today.” With this invention, it was no longer necessary to stop or shut down large machinery in order to apply the needed lubrication.
McCoy received his first patent on July 12, 1872, and it was quickly adopted by the major industries using heavy equipment. So popular did his lubrication system become that persons inspecting new equipment generally inquired if it contained the “real McCoy.” It is perhaps an indication of the widespread use of his inventions in that the phrase, “the real McCoy,” is now a part language.
Elijah McCoy was born in Canada in 1843. His parents had been slaves who fled from their masters in the state of Kentucky. As a youth, Elijah was fascinated with machines and tools. He enjoyed watching and working on them. He came to the United States after the Civil War and settled near Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he worked in a machine shop. In 1870, McCoy turned his attention to the problem of oiling machinery which was in motion.
For two years he worked on the problem. In the spring of 1873, McCoy developed the small, oil-filled container with a stop cock to regulate the flow of oil to the innards of moving equipment. Elijah McCoy subsequently invented twenty-three lubricators for different kinds of equipment as well as an ironing table, lawn sprinkler, steam dome, and dope cup.
He eventually set up the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan to develop and sell his inventions. He worked with such intensity that he often patented two or three new devices each year. The continuous hum of the many industrial plants so characteristic of America is, in significant measure, due to the inventions of a self-taught mechanic, the son of fugitive slaves who fled America to lead the lives of free people.