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The Smoke Stack

Railroad and “the real McCoy”

Posted on June 15, 2017

Did you know that the expression “the real McCoy” which typically refers to “the real thing” can be traced back to a railroad-related product?

Let’s begin with an explanation of a device called an automatic lubricator. The purpose of the lubricator is to supply oil to a steam engine’s cylinders and sometimes the bearings and axle box mountings. Before the automated version was invented in 1872, steam engines had to shut down after every use completely and during long trips for them to be oiled. The automatic oil-drip lubricator allowed the proper oiling maintenance to occur while the train was running, saving time and hassle.


The inventor of the first automatic steam engine lubricator was… Elijah McCoy.

A bit about Elijah: born the son of fugitive slaves, Elijah faced racial discrimination and made his living stoking fires and oiling engines for the Michigan Central Railroad, even though he was a trained in Scotland as a mechanical engineer. Frustrated with the process of maintaining steam engines, Elijah, in his own Ypsilanti workshop, used his training to develop a lubricating cup that continuously fed oil to steam engines.


The phrase: because automatic lubricators were in high demand, they were often copied. The copies were usually inferior to Elijah’s original version which led engineers to begin seeking out “the real McCoy” to ensure that they were getting the highest quality device!

Elijah continued his inventions and improvement upon the lubricator, and throughout his lifetime he had over 50 patents to his name. Booker T. Washington recognized Elijah as having produced more patents than any other black inventor up to that time.

Next time you hear the phrase “It’s the real McCoy” you’ll realize where it came from!

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