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Random Thoughts

The real McCoy


March 13, 2020

Elijah McCoy was born in the Canadian province of Ontario in 1844. His parents were former slaves who had run away from their Kentucky master in 1837.

Utilizing the series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, George and Mildred McCoy settled in Canada and raised 12 children. In 1859 they relocated to the United States and became hired hands for a farmer in Michigan.

Meanwhile, young Elijah showed a special interest in how things worked so his parents arranged for him to travel to Scotland when he was 15 years old to become an apprentice to a mechanical engineer.

Armed with an engineering certificate, McCoy returned to the United States after a few years. Eventually, he got a job on a railroad as a fireman who was also charged with keeping the train’s machinery oiled.

In 1872 McCoy patented an “automatic lubricator” for use in the railroad industry. Eventually, he received 57 patents for all kinds of devices including a folding ironing board and a lawn sprinkler.

But his reputation rested primarily on his train oiling devices that saved time and trouble. Because trains did not have to stop for oil maintenance, they could travel farther and faster.

Elijah McCoy never made much money from any of his inventions because he lacked the funds to manufacture and market them in large quantities.

Presumably, some railroad owners would not use oilers other than those McCoy had invented. Refusing to use devices of lesser renown, they demanded the “real” thing – thus originating the phrase “The Real McCoy”.

Recent researchers, however, have debunked that myth, citing sources indicating that the expression was in use when McCoy was just a small child.

Still, it makes for an interesting story, and it is very likely that railroaders used the phrase even if it was not original to this particular man named McCoy.

Elijah McCoy died in 1929 at the age of 85. He is buried in Warren, Michigan. In 2001 he was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame located in Alexandria, Virginia.


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