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Elijah McCoy
(229 West Michigan Avenue)
Canada-born Elijah McCoy (1843-1929) automated steam engine maintenance, previously done by hand, by patenting an automatic lubricator in 1972. By 1926 he had patented more than forty lubricating devices used internationally on trains and boats and in factories. Trained as a mechanical engineer in Scotland, this son of former slaves faced racial discrimination in the U.S. and made his living as a fireman stoking fires and oiling engines for the Michigan Central Railroad. McCoy sought to end the delays caused by frequent oil stops. In his Ypsilanti workshop he developed a lubricating cup that continuously fed oil to steam engines. The inventor's other patents included a folding ironing table. Assurance of authenticity of McCoy lubricating cups are believed to have been the orgin of the phrase "the real McCoy." Bureau of Michigan History, Michigan Department of State, Registered State Site No. 642, Property of the State of Michigan - 1984.

Standing in the plaza just east of the library on Michigan Avenue is the Michigan Historic Marker honoring the memory of African-American inventor Elijah McCoy. He was the son of slaves who had escaped from Kentucky, and had settled in Ypsilanti. Young Elijah graduated from high school in Ypsilanti and spent the year’s 1859 to 1864 studying engineering in Scotland.

On his return to Michigan he was only able to find employment with the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman. As part of his duties, he had to oil the engine of the train, which had to make frequent stops for this reason. In his home based machine shop, McCoy invented an automatic lubricator cup for oiling steam engines. This was his first patent, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines” granted on July 23, 1872. It is believed this was the origin of the term “the Real McCoy” because engineers would ask if it was “the real McCoy," when buying lubricator cups for trains.

Elijah McCoy held some 60 patents by the time of his death in 1929.

The Michigan Historical Marker was made possible by the work of Ypsilanti Historian A. P. Marshall, resident Maymette Dolberry and state Representative Kirk Profit. The marker was dedicated on June 12, 1994.