By Don Valentine
We all have heard the cliche “The real McCoy!” This trope means authentic or genuine – “The real deal.” Most people don’t know that the phrase comes from the pristine workmanship of a Black man named Elijah McCoy. Mr. McCoy was a genius like Leonardo da Vinci. He created 57 patents for the fledgling railroad industry. His engineering skill was often imitated but never duplicated. Others attempted to mimic his inventions, arguing that a Black man could not produce a better quality product than a White man. The marketplace proved to be the final arbiter!
Mr. McCoy was born in 1844 in Ontario; his parents were escaped slaves from Kentucky. The fugitive slaves escaped human purgatory via the Underground Railroad. After living in Ontario for several years, the family moved to Detroit following the Civil War. As a little boy, our genius inventor showed a strong passion for mechanics. His parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland at the age of 15 for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. He returned home to Michigan after becoming certified as a mechanical engineer.
Despite being educated as an engineer, The Canadian Railway Hall of Fame, writes “The discriminatory management of the railroad thought a Black man couldn’t be an engineer, and he was hired to work in the boiler room of trains as a fireman.”
In 1872, he invented and patented an automatic oiling device for the moving parts of steam locomotives. It was colloquially known as the “oil-drip cup.” This invention was quickly adopted by the railroads, and companies who maintained steamship engines. In addition it received rave reviews among those who used large machinery. The University of Michigan noted, “The device was not particularly complicated so it was easy for competitors to produce similar devices. However, McCoy’s device was an original development and, apparently, had the best reputation.”
McCoy used some of the money from ventures associated with his first patent to continue inventing, coming up with mostly railway-related products but also an improved ironing board. He consulted for firms and continued to come up with steam engine improvements. When he was 72 years old, in 1916, he patented the “graphite lubricator” which was a mixture of graphite and oil that worked well in the period’s “superheater” locomotives. This is another highlight of Black History that is not included in the curriculum for US history. Thanks to the Black press we know about the “Real McCoy!”
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