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Black History Month: Elijah McCoy

English is full of expressions we use daily without questioning. Though many of these turns of phrases have problematic or disturbing origins, it’s fascinating to learn how one idiom — “the real McCoy” — has a special relationship to the proud history we celebrate during Black History Month. 

“The real McCoy” means the same today as it did back in 1872: a mark of quality and confidence in a product that is like no other.

Born a free man in Canada to former slaves, Elijah McCoy set out for Detroit after the Civil War. Despite studying engineering in Canada and Scotland, American managers held a patronizing view towards the Black engineer. 

McCoy found work as a fireman in train boiler rooms, but he quietly began work at home. In 1872 at his workshop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, McCoy developed and patented an automatic device for oiling the moving parts of steam engines. It was known in the industry as the “oil-drip cup.”

The device was revolutionary in the railroad industry and was quickly purchased. However, like any successful invention, the simple elegance of the oil drip cup was easy to copy, spawning knockoffs and imitators. Through all this, McCoy’s original maintained the best reputation and may well have led to industry insiders calling it “the real McCoy.”

A skilled and prolific inventor, McCoy wasn’t satisfied with this one success. He used some of the money he made from the oil-drip cup to finance further projects he would go on to patent. While many were railroad-related, he also made significant improvements to the ironing board.

McCoy continued inventing into his later years. At 72, he patented a graphite lubricator that complemented the superheater trains of the early 1900s. It wasn’t until 1920 that he would start his own company and continue his work, though, sadly, he would pass away in 1929.

Ultimately, McCoy patented 57 inventions, many of which still impact our lives today. Looking at this impressive record today, however, doesn’t fully acknowledge what might have been his greatest contributions to Black history: the dedication, perseverance, and undeniable skills it took to acquire the patents themselves.

Pre-Civil War, patent laws only protected the rights of citizens. As enslaved persons weren’t considered citizens, they were legally powerless when slave owners took credit for their inventions. After the war, Black inventors were granted “exclusive Rights to their respective Writings and Discoveries” under the patent system for the first time.

McCoy became one of the first in a legacy that now includes the inventor of the Super Soaker, Lonnie Johnson; software inventor Janet Emerson Bashen; and Bishop Curry V, a ten-year-old who patented a device that prevents child deaths caused by hot cars. 

The origins of McCoy’s namesake phrase are still unclear. Some suggest the phrase derived from a Scottish advertisement for “The Real McKay.” Others claim the phrase celebrates radio pioneer George Braidwood McCoy, though the usage predates him. Ultimately, Elijah McCoy’s legacy emerged as the most probable and most deserving of “the real McCoy.” 

Kenny Hedges | Contributing Writer

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