You may have heard the phrase “The Real McCoy” but do you know where it comes from?
Elijah McCoy was a black inventor and engineer in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He is known for his 57 U.S. patents and for completely revolutionizing the railroad industry.
McCoy was born in Canada and moved to Michigan as a child; his parents were escaped slaves who had left Kentucky through the Underground Railroad. His parents saved up and were able to send McCoy to Scotland to encourage his mechanical interest and studies. He returned to the U.S. as a certified mechanical engineer.
Despite McCoy’s skill and qualifications, it was almost impossible to find work due to the color of his skin. Skilled professional positions were not available for African Americans at the time, regardless of their training or background.
He took a railroad job and continued to developed his ideas on his own time. He studied inefficiencies in the existing locomotive technology.
In 1872, McCoy patented a device that automatically oiled locomotive parts while the train was moving. Before this, trains would overheat and had to be stopped for hours to cool down and be re-oiled. His invention saved train companies countless hours and profits, and made transportation more reliable and efficient.
The massive technological breakthrough was quickly copied by other engineers, but his skill and craftsmanship were difficult to correctly replicate. His name became synonymous with superior quality; railroad workers would ask for “the real McCoy,” and would refuse to use technology from another company.
McCoy never stopped working or improving his devices; he patented nearly 60 inventions in his life. Many related to improving train travel, but he also designed ironing boards, lawn sprinklers and other machines we use today. In 1920, toward the end of his life, McCoy formed the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company and gained even more credibility and respect.
Even though the world and industry was working against him, McCoy changed and improved transportation for all of us worldwide. Thank you, Elijah McCoy.
Video created by Sean W. Malone for Fee.org. Information sourced from Lawrence W. Reed’s new book, “Real Heroes.”