The Real McCoy: A Phrase, A Man, A Legacy
By: Chloe Fine
The Phrase “the Real McCoy” has been used in North American vocabulary for over 140 years and is still commonly used among older generations. Although the term is still widely known to this day, the man the phrase refers to and whose remarkable ingenuity prompted its very creation became somewhat forgotten by our cultural memory. His legacy has become undeservedly confined to the pages of history and specific fields of study such as engineering and entrepreneurship; however, within this narrow scope, his achievements continue to be remembered and celebrated today. So, what were these achievements, how did his quality of intellect become so renowned, and most importantly, who was the real McCoy?
Elijah McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, in 1844. His parents were formerly enslaved African Americans who had escaped to Canada via the underground railroad. McCoy excelled in school, with a particular interest in the STEM subjects. At the age of 15, he was sent to Scotland for a technical apprenticeship and would then study mechanical engineering at the University of Edinburgh. It was there that he was certified as a mechanical engineer. After finishing his education, McCoy returned to North America, moving to Michigan for better work opportunities. Due to racial prejudice, he was denied employment in skilled labour positions despite his extensive qualifications. Prevented from working in the profession he was trained in; he began a job at the Michigan Central Railroad as a fireman. While he was working on the railroad, he noticed inefficiencies within the train operations. One of his jobs as a fireman was to keep the engine parts lubricated. This had to be done often and required trains to stop and wait for the task to be finished before moving again.
McCoy’s training as an engineer and aptitude for problem-solving caused him to notice the inefficiency of the process and believe that there had a be a mechanical solution. In 1872, he invented an automatic lubricator which he patented. His first invention was widely recognized as an incredible innovation. He did not have the capital to manufacture and distribute it himself, so he sold his patent rights to his employers, who then gave him a new position as an instructor so he could train others in how to use his invention. McCoy would go on to create many other industrial inventions, successfully filing over 50 patents throughout his life. He was constantly continuing to improve his designs, which led to him spending much of his career as a consultant for railroad companies around the patent process.
As his inventions became sweepingly popular, others attempted to sell imitations of McCoy’s products. This was especially common of his automatic lubricator as its design was as relatively straightforward as it was ingenious. Despite the array of copycats on the market, none worked as well or were as durable, leaving many companies to seek out McCoy’s expertise still specifically. There is no known evidence behind the genesis of the expression “the real McCoy,” but it is broadly accepted that the idiom came from how famous the quality of his work was. So many people were wary of inferior products and always asked to purchase the real McCoy’s, so they were getting the best version on the market.
Elijah McCoy’s inventions and the tools they inspired are still used today. Despite his incredible legacy as an inventor, he only recently received the recognition he deserved. In 2001 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. Although few people know his remarkable story, it is commemorated in plaques placed on his family home in Lincoln, Michigan, his first workshop, and his birthplace.
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