How this revolutionary Black inventor Google just celebrated inspired the phrase ‘the real McCoy’

Elijah McCoy, ca. 1890 Courtesy Henry Ford Collection (P.188.4882), Public domain image

On Monday, Google Doodle celebrated the 178th birthday of a Black Canadian-American inventor and engineer who had a passion for problem-solving and mechanics growing up such that before his death, he held 57 United States patents, mostly related to the railway and locomotives.

His name was Elijah McCoy, and here is how he helped inspire the phrase “the real McCoy,” which is used now to describe something authentic.

He was born in 1844 in Colchester, Ontario after his parents had escaped slavery in Kentucky on the Underground Railroad and settled in Canada. McCoy returned to the U.S. with his family at a young age and soon gained an interest in mechanics and trains. At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering but when he came back home to his family, who were now living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he found it difficult to find a job as an engineer because of his race.

Thus, he joined the Michigan Central Railroad in 1866 as a fireman and oiler, where his job included lubricating engine components. During this period, engines had to be stopped and lubricated before they could be restarted. McCoy saw how inefficient this was, and six years after getting his job at the Michigan Central Railroad, he found a solution. He came up with an automatic lubricator that kept engines oiled while they were in operation.

Invented and patented in 1872, his device for the moving parts of steam locomotives was colloquially known as the “oil-drip cup.” The cup caused oil to steadily flow around the engine without needing to stop the train, according to Google.

“McCoy’s patented device was quickly adopted by the railroads, by those who maintained steamship engines and many others who used large machinery,” the University of Michigan writes. “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.”

It is believed that as people created inferior copies of McCoy’s product, people who wanted to buy McCoy’s specific device and not a fake started asking for “the real McCoy,” and that’s how people began using the phrase “the real McCoy” to refer to quality products.

McCoy continued to come up with new inventions including an improved ironing board. In 1882, he moved to Detroit from Ypsilanti, Michigan, with his wife, and there, he worked as a consultant to engineering companies before in 1920 he established his own company — the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company — which sold his inventions under his own trademark.

In 1922, McCoy got injured in an accident that also claimed the life of his wife. He passed away later in 1929. In 2001, the Black inventor and engineer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. A patent office in Detroit is also named after him besides his popular legacy — the “real McCoy” phrase.

Google Doodle, while honoring him on his birthday, wrote that McCoy’s “innovations and ingenuity kept trains chugging and have laid the tracks for the well-oiled machines of today.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: May 3, 2022


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