Calling for the Real McCoy : The Story of Elijah McCoy (Black History 365)

Welcome readers,

Give it up to Elijah McCoy the real McCoy. Well, maybe. 

McCoy was an inventor who held 57 United States patents, most of them coming from the railways. His inventions, which were not groundbreaking outside the field of steam engines, were so associated with high quality and excellent function that people began saying “the real McCoy” to refer to superlative products. 

Like many other black inventors, McCoy had to endure racism and exclusion in his work, but that didn’t deter him from having a lengthy and successful career. McCoy was born in 1843 to George and Emilia McCoy, two former slaves from Kentucky who had escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He lived with his family in Ontario for several years before they relocated to Detroit following the Civil War. While in Detroit, Elijah got an education as well as in Edinburgh Scotland. 

Furthermore, he returned to the States and ended up working for the Michigan Central Railroad. According to the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame, although McCoy was educated as an engineer, the discriminatory management of the railroad thought a black man wasn’t capable of being an engineer. McCoy was hired and relegated to work in the boiler room of trains. 

However, things changed for the better in 1872. McCoy invented and patented an automatic oiling device for the moving parts of steam locomotives, colloquially known as the “oil drip cup”. According to the University of Michigan, “McCoy’s patented device was quickly adopted by the railroads, by those who maintained steamship engines, and many others who used large machinery”. “The device was not particularly complicated so it was easy for competitors to produce similar devices. However, McCoy’s device was an original development, and apparently, had the best reputation”. That may well have been how the phrase “the real McCoy became popular” (end quote). 

McCoy used the profit he received from ventures associated with his first patent to continue inventing, mainly focusing his attention on railway-related inventions but making improvements on the ironing board. Moreover, he moved to Detroit from Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1882 with Mary McCoy, his wife, the railway hall of fame writes, where he consulted for firms and continued to brainstorm ideas. 

When McCoy was 72 in 1916, he patented the “graphite lubricator” which was composed of a mixture of graphite and oil that worked well in the period’s “super heater locomotives, but he didn’t establish his own company to make some of his inventions until 1920. Unfortunately, in 1922 he was injured in an accident that resulted in the death of his wife. McCoy died seven years later in 1929 after suffering financial, physical, and mental problems. 

McCoy’s legacy was enshrined when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. His former hometown Detroit named a patent office to honor him. In terms of the widely known phrase “the real McCoy”, the Canadian encyclopedia says the phrase has an ambiguous origin. It states quote “many have suggested that the phrase became common parlance among mechanical engineers who refused to install knockoff lubricators onto their locomotives, demanding instead the original McCoy design. However, parallel mythologies surround a number of other figures of the late 19th and early 20th century”. “There’s Charlie “Kid” McCoy and Joseph McCoy, and G. MacKay and Company, a distiller which used “the real MacKay” as a promotional slogan. All things considered, it would be safe to say they were all the real thing. 

Works Cited

Eschner, Kat. “This Prolific Inventor Helped Give Us the Phrase ‘The Real Mccoy.’”, Smithsonian Institution, 2 May 2017,

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