The term “the Real McCoy” is more than just a catch phrase. Since it first started being used more than a century ago, it has also been a signal of quality as well as an affirmation of the intellect and perseverance of Elijah McCoy, a man whose legacy is a source of pride not only for black Canadians, but for all descendants of North American chattel slavery.
Elijah McCoy was a famous inventor and engineer who was born in Canada, grew up in the United States, studied in Scotland, and made great contributions to manufacturing and locomotive industries around the world. The third of twelve children, he was born in the mid-1840s (historians cannot be certain whether his year of birth was 1843 or 1844) in Colchester, Ontario, to George McCoy and Mildred McCoy (née Goins), two escaped slaves from Kentucky. When Elijah was a young child, the McCoys returned to the United States. They settled in Michigan, and his father found work in the logging industry.
Blacks in the United States had a hard time obtaining mechanical training, so Elijah, who exhibited an aptitude in that area, went to Scotland to study Mechanical Engineering. When he returned, despite his qualifications, he was unable to work as a mechanical engineer in either Southwest Ontario or Michigan, and so he began working for the Michigan Central Railroad as a fire man and oiler. As a fire man, his main job was to fuel the steam engines of trains; his duties as an oiler included lubricating the train’s moving parts, axles and bearings. It was while working as an oiler that McCoy noticed a persistent problem with moving machinery, and devised a solution for it.
Trains back then needed to be lubricated periodically, to prevent the corrosion of metal due to high-pressure steam and to stop the machinery from overheating. Every time a train’s engine had to be lubricated, the train had to be stopped completely. McCoy created a way of using steam pressure in the train’s cylinders to supply the machinery with drops of oil from a cup as the train continued to run, eliminating the bothersome process of shutting down machinery to lubricate it.
McCoy was issued his first patent on July 12, 1872 (U.S. patent #129,843) for his self-regulating lubricator, and railroad and shipping lines quickly began using McCoy’s machine. Clearly one to push the envelope and look for improvements wherever possible, McCoy continued to build new inventions while improving upon his own designs, and was awarded more than 50 patents during his lifetime in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Austria, Germany, and Russia. The Michigan Central Railroad promoted him to an instructor’s position so he could teach others about his inventions and the proper way to use them, and he later worked as a mechanical consultant to companies like the Detroit Lubricating Company.
Machine buyers everywhere began asking for “the Real McCoy,” meaning that they wanted nothing but the best – genuine Elijah McCoy inventions, and not something that a copy-cat had put out on the market. To this day, the name connotes quality and authenticity. With the exception of a folding ironing board and a self-propelled lawn sprinkler, all of his inventions involved automatic lubrication, and they were used on locomotives, steam ships, ocean liners, and in factories around the world.
Ironically, many of those who asked for “the Real McCoy” were not aware that they were calling the name of a black man, and McCoy continued to face racial discrimination after he had become a well-known inventor. There were even times when the scheduled appearances of this innovator, who had proven himself to be a mechanical genius and made significant contributions to the industrial world, were canceled at the last moment.
By the early 1880s, McCoy and his second wife, Mary Eleanora Delaney (he had married an Ann Elizabeth Stewart in 1868, but she died four years later) had moved to a non-segregated neighborhood in Detroit, Michigan. In 1916, he patented his Graphite Lubricator. McCoy described this as his greatest invention; it used powdered graphite (a substance which could easily withstand high temperatures, but was previously prone to clogging engines) mixed with oil to lubricate superheated locomotive engine cylinders. In 1920, he established his own company: the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.
Sadly, McCoy suffered in later years. He and his wife were injured in a serious car accident in 1922; she died as a result, and his health was never the same. After spending a year in Michigan’s Eloise Infirmary, Elijah McCoy died of senile dementia caused by hypertension on October 10, 1929 – less than a month before the stock market crash that sparked the Great Depression. He has been inducted into Ohio’s National Inventors Hall of Fame, and he was also nominated by the International African Inventors Museum for induction into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame. To this day, when people ask for “the Real McCoy,” it is understood that they want the best and nothing less.