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Elijah McCoy


As a young man, Elijah McCoy (1843-1929)--who had been born in a community of escaped slaves in Canada--sought a position with the Michigan Central Railroad. Despite the engineering training he had received during an apprenticeship in Scotland, the only job open to McCoy was that of locomotive fireman/oilman. In this position, McCoy observed first-hand the problems that locomotives had with overheating caused by friction, and in 1872, he designed and patented a device to improve their function. The McCoy Graphite Lubricator oiled moving parts while a train was in operation; trains no longer had to stop for re-oiling and suffered fewer breakdowns caused by overheating. Many other inventors tried their hand at designing lubrication devices, but McCoy's was the most successful. This is probably the origin of the expression, "the real McCoy." McCoy was one of the most prolific 19th century African American inventors. He formed his own company and invented, patented, and sold 57 devices and machine parts during his lifetime. In 1900, the US Patent Office found that more than 400 African Americans had received patents (and many more black inventors had applied for them).
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