The Black Inventor Who Inspired The Phrase “The Real McCoy”

Did you know that the phrase “the real McCoy” was inspired by Elijah McCoy? 

McCoy was an inventor and mechanical engineer who developed many devices that improved the efficiency of locomotives and other machines. 

He is best known for inventing the steam engine lubricator, which ensured that machines ran smoothly.

Perhaps one of the most unintentional but memorable things that came from McCoy’s inventions is the phrase “the real McCoy,” which came to be used to describe anything genuine or authentic. 

In this blog post, we will learn more about the life and work of Elijah McCoy!

Who Was Elijah McCoy?

Elijah McCoy was born in 1844 in Canada after his parents fled enslavement in Kentucky, traveling north through the Underground Railroad. 

Finally, they reached Ontario, Canada, where they welcomed Elijah into their family. In 1847, when Elijah was almost three, the family moved back to the United States to Michigan. 

While they lived in the state, Elijah began to show an interest in mechanics. It wasn’t long before he showed a remarkable aptitude for it.

When Elijah McCoy was 15, he traveled to Scotland to pursue his education, where he trained at the University of Edinburgh as an engineer. 

It was a long process, but according to the University, McCoy completed his apprenticeship and received his certificate in mechanical engineering. 

In 1866, the Civil War had recently ended, and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, so McCoy moved back to Michigan looking for work. 

Although the laws had changed, racism was still alive and well, and it was difficult for McCoy to find a job as a mechanical engineer.

Elijah McCoy’s Early Working Life

Even after the 13th Amendment, African men and women were still prohibited from professional positions. Unfortunately, no one was willing to hire a black engineer or give him the chance to prove himself. 

Companies still believed that Black workers were still only suited for manual labor. McCoy eventually found work, but it wasn’t in the field of his choice. He did find a job with the Michigan Central Railboard, but Instead, he worked as a fireman and a train oiler. 

The job was mentally but physically exhausting and labor-intensive. In other words, it wasn’t efficient and hard work.

What Locomotives Were Like in The Late 1800s

In the 18th century, British engineers began conceiving the steam engine. As it became a viable machine, it started changing the face of industry and humanity’s relationship to work. 

In 1712, the first commercially viable steam engine was created by Thomas Newcomen and his assistant John Cally. It was an atmospheric engine that used steam to power a pump. 

It wasn’t efficient, but companies used hundreds of these engines to perform jobs that had once been out of reach for them.

Although it was until the end of the 18th century that John Watt, also known as the “father of the steam engine,” significantly improved the steam engine’s design, making it more efficient. 

His design used “high-pressure steam” on both sides of the piston, doubling the output. However, Watt’s inventions also included pressure gauges, throttle valves, and steam regulators. 

In America, inventors had been on par with their British counterparts,

The first locomotive was built in 1825 by John Stevens built, the first practical steam locomotive. Still, it wasn’t until he began petitioning Congress in 1812 that progress started being made on the project. 

Then, in 1831, Mattias Baldwin established the Baldwin Locomotive Works, which later established itself as the largest single-plant locomotive builder in the world. His company dominated the market. 

So, by the time McCoy was born and ready to work, steam locomotives were more improved and becoming increasingly common. However, as workers in his field would find out, they still had a long way to go.

The Inventions of Elijah McCoy

When he was 25, McCoy secured his job as an oiler and worked on the Michigan Central Railroad. Steam engines were notorious for their inefficiency. 

They required a lot of maintenance and needed to be regularly oiled. That’s where McCoy came in; he was constantly observing the engines and trying to find ways to make them more efficient. 

He quickly realized that there was a lot of wasted motion in oiling the machine. In addition, the process required the engine to be stopped, and an oiler would have to climb up and apply the oil by hand.

McCoy realized he could create a device that would automatically do the job. So, in 1872, he invented a lubricator that drips oil onto the engine while running. 

It was a simple invention, but it significantly impacted how steam engines operated. His creation became known as the “oil drip cup.” 

The “oil drip cup” worked by automatically distributing oil to locomotive bearings while they were in operation; this way, the engine would continue running smoothly without needing to stop for maintenance as often. 

Unfortunately, His ingenious invention was quickly adopted by the railroads, companies that maintained steamship engines, and other companies that managed large machinery.

McCoy patented the invention in 1872, which should have made him rich, but he didn’t profit from it as he should have, and companies began to copy his product. 

Instead, companies copied his design and began selling their own versions of the “oil drip cup.” 

McCoy continued working as an oiler while other companies tried to recreate his success with the “oil-drip cup,” but their versions weren’t as effective despite the simplicity of the design.

McCoy’s invention was an original design and performed the best, and Railroad engineers would specifically request McCoy’s oil-drip cup to avoid using any poor-quality products.

 It’s unclear who started saying the phrase, but the railroad engineers working there are likely where the term came from, as McCoy’s invention was so compelling and well-known that it inspired the saying, “the real McCoy.” 

Whenever someone needed a genuine, high-quality part, they specifically asked for “the real McCoy.”

McCoy Continued Inventing And Working

Elijah McCoy continued to work on and perfect the lubricating cup for railroads, but he was not generating much profit from it. 

Since he could not produce the lubricators himself, McCoy assigned his patent rights to the railroad company. To raise money, later on, the inventor sold patents to investors. While many of McCoy’s patents were railroad-related inventions, he also had some in other areas.

He created a portable ironing board inspired by his wife and a lawn sprinkler. McCoy also made a rubber-soled shoe. In 1916, at 72, McCoy patented another lubricating machine for the newer locomotives of the 20th century. 

During that time, the trains ran much hotter than their predecessors, so McCoy realized they needed an updated, more efficient version of his previous design. 

Like before, McCoy failed to disappoint and patented the new “graphite lubricator,” which used a mix of oil and graphite to lubricate all the engine parts.

With his newest invention, he could start his own company; unfortunately, it took him 50 years to generate enough funds to start his business, but in 1920 he finally did and opened the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company. 

Fortunately, opening his own business also meant that his lubricating cup would finally bear his name. The true injustice here is that it took as long as it did for McCoy to receive the credit and recognition he deserved.

Tragic End To McCoy’s Life

It’s a shame that it took until McCoy was 72 years old to get the chance to start his own company and have his name on his invention, but at least he was able to see some success in his later years. 

McCoy’s story doesn’t have a happy ending; in 1922, only two years after opening his company, McCoy and his wife were in a devastating car crash. 

The crash killed his wife and left him with serious injuries that prevented him from continuing his work.

McCoy died seven years later, never having fully recovered from the accident; he was also impoverished, suffering from years of not being adequately compensated for his work. He died at the age of 85 in the Eloise Infirmary. 

Elijah McCoy was a man who overcame many obstacles in his life. He was almost born into slavery and encountered racism and more hurdles than anyone should have, but he still became a world-renowned inventor. 

He was one of the most successful African American inventors of his time and is known for inventing the lubricating cup for steam engines.

Yet even through the hardships in his life, his inventions spurred further improvement and development in the railroad industry. 

The phrase “the real McCoy” is still used today to refer to something that is a genuine article and of the highest quality, a testament to McCoy’s legacy. 

Elijah McCoy was a fantastic man everyone should remember for his accomplishments, not just the phrase his work inspired.

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