Ever heard the expression, is that the “real McCoy?” No, its not the musical group we are talking about. Real McCoy is actually a reference to one of America’s most prolific inventors, Elijah McCoy. McCoy invented and patented all kinds of mechanical things to help them work smoothly, efficiently and safely.
Over time, the expression “real McCoy” has been used for anything that means the real thing, the real solution.
Elijah McCoy was born in 1843 at Colchester, in Ontario, Canada to George and Mildred McCoy. His parents had once been slaves at a large manor in Kentucky, America. However, they managed to escape to Canada before the American Civil War began in 1865. Following the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery and the McCoy family returned to settle at Ypsilanti, Michigan.
As a child, Elijah was fascinated with all things mechanical. Encouraged by this interest Elijah’s parents saved money and sent him to Edinburgh in Scotland to study mechanical engineering.
He soon returned with an engineering degree but as a “black man” and “negro”, as blacks have been addressed in scorn, Elijah couldn’t find work. Though slavery had been abolished and people of African origin were now considered American citizens, white Americans treated the Afro-Americans as inferior people. Their hearts and minds were still very racist.
Afro-Americans were not allowed to vote nor given prominent jobs even when they were educated. Elijah with his engineering background could only get a job shovelling wood in locomotives for the Michigan Central Railroad.
Part of his job was to oil the engine parts when the train stopped to take on water. Elijah decided to work on this problem of oiling the parts as the Michigan Railroad and other railways were finding it expensive and time-consuming. In 1872, he came up with a self-lubricating device for the steam engine and applied for a patent.
Initially his invention was smirked at and pooh-poohed because he was a black man. However, it was quite evident that his invention worked and the railroads took notice. Industrialists soon began to insist that the “real McCoy” or the self-lubricating device be installed in their engines.
Elijah, the real McCoy, became famous. His name became synonymous with things that worked as against advertising gimmickry.
In 1920, Elijah established his own factory, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, at Detroit, Michigan to manufacture products. He never looked back and never stopped inventing.
Soon he had applied for over 50 patents in the U.S., Canada, Britain, and in various countries in Europe. All his inventions had to do with his love for mechanics. Till the end he continued to fiddle around with engines and even in his 70s he patented an improved air brake lubricator.
Today, the real McCoy means the actual thing, unconsciously crediting the man who ‘real’ised things in everyday life!