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Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, Canada on May 2, 1844, the son of former slaves who had fled from Kentucky before the U.S. Civil War. Educated in Scotland as a mechanical engineer, Elijah McCoy returned to the United States and settled in Detroit, Michigan. He began experimenting with a cup that would regulate the flow of oil onto moving parts of industrial machines.

Self Oiling CupHis first invention was a lubricator for steam engines, U.S. 129,843, which issued on July 12, 1872. The invention allowed machines to remain in motion to be oiled; his new oiling device revolutionized the industrial machine industry. Elijah McCoy established his own firm and was responsible for a total of 57 patents. The term "real McCoy" refers to the oiling device used for industrial machinery. His contribution to the lubricating device became so popular that people inspecting new equipment would ask is the device contained the real McCoy. This helped popularize the American expression, meaning the real thing. His other inventions included an ironing board and lawn sprinkler.

Elijah McCoy died on October 10, 1929 after a year in the Eloise Infirmary, Eloise, Michigan, suffering from senile dementia caused by hypertension. He was buried in Detroit, Michigan.