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Reply #161: "the real McCoy" [View All]

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Two Americas Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Nov-07-08 02:39 PM
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161. "the real McCoy"
The phrase "the real McCoy" is used throughout the English speaking world to describe something on the highest quality, or an authentic and reliable item or person. But few know who the actual "McCoy" was.

From an introduction to a play produced in Canada honoring McCoy's life:

Born in Canada to runaway slaves, McCoy became a leading expert in the field of thermo-dynamics whose inventions revolutionized steam engine travel. When others tried to imitate his achievements, people began asking if what they were buying was the real McCoy. When railroad engineers especially asked for a lubricating joint, they always wanted McCoys invention and asked for the real McCoy. McCoys move to Detroit in the United States exposed him to adversity and eventually stripped him of his inventions, his sanity and his life.

From CanadaWiki:

Black Canadian engineer, inventor, whose name came to be synonymous for genuine quality, or the real thing, born in Colchester, Ontario on May 2, 1844, the son of former slaves George McCoy and Mildred Goins from Kentucky, who escaped on the Underground Railroad; died October 10, 1929 in Detroit, Michigan. Educated in Edinburgh, Scotland as a mechanical engineer,
First page of McCoy's patent on steam engine lubricators.

McCoy returned to Canada and got a job as a locomotive fireman/oilman for the Michigan Central Railroad. Working in a home-based machine shop in Ypsilanti, Michigan, McCoy identified new ways to lubricate engines to prevent overheating; July 23, 1872 obtained his first US patent, for "Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines". McCoy went on to develop over 80 patents; he invented and marketed 57 different kinds of devices and machine parts including a folding ironing board, rubber show heels and a lawn sprinkler.

Elijah McCoy (1843?-1929) made important contributions to the design of railroad locomotives after the Civil War. He kept pace with the progress of locomotive design, devising new lubricating systems that served the steam engines of the early twentieth century. These were demanding indeed, for they operated at high temperatures and pressures.

The date of McCoy's birth is not known; various sources give it as March 27, 1843; May 2, 1843; and May 2, 1844. His parents, George McCoy and the former Mildred Goins, were fugitive slaves who had escaped to Canada from Kentucky. At the time, Canada was part of the British Empire, which had abolished slavery in 1833. When the Canadian leader, Louis Riel, launched a rebellion in 1837, the British government used troops to defeat the rebels. George McCoy enlisted with the British force. In return for his loyal service, he received 160 acres of farmland near Colchester, Ontario. Here, he raised a family of 12 children.

His father's ties to Britain proved useful as young McCoy pursued his education. As a boy, he was fascinated with tools and machines. At the age of 16, he traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to serve an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. In Edinburgh, McCoy won the credentials of a master mechanic and engineer. Following the Civil War, the McCoys returned to the United States and settled near Ypsilanti, Michigan, outside of Detroit. Young Elijah sought work as an engineer, but met with defeat due to racial prejudice. Nevertheless, he obtained a job as a fireman and oiler on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1870. This was a responsible position, for service as a fireman was a customary prelude to promotion to the post of locomotive driver. Work as a fireman was a far cry from engineering, and it proved to be a physically demanding job. As a fireman, McCoy had to shovel coal into the firebox of his locomotive, at the rate of two tons per hour. He also had to walk around the locomotive and lubricate its moving parts using an oilcan during frequent stops, while it took on water.

In reviewing the life of this inventor, writers and essayists often note that railroad purchasing agents commonly insisted on buying "the real McCoy." Other inventors were offering lubricators that competed with those of McCoy, but these agents would accept no substitutes. Many of these authors assert that the phrase "real McCoy" passed out of the specialized world of railroad engineering and entered general usage, where it came to mean "the genuine article."

While McCoy's inventions made millions of dollars, little of this money reached his pockets. Lacking the capital with which to build his lubricators in large numbers, he sold many of his patent rights to well-heeled investors. In return, he was given only the modest sums that allowed him to continue his work. McCoy received at least 72 patents during his lifetime, most of which dealt with lubricating devices, but retained ownership of only a few of them.

Elijah McCoy ended up obtaining at least fifty-seven patents in his lifetime. Most of the patents were lubrication devices that saved human time and labor. Unfortunately, Elijah didn't have the money to finance the manufacturing of his inventions. Therefore, he was forced to sell the rights to investors. His inventions probably earned millions of dollars, but Elijah only received a very small portion of that.
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