It’s The Real McCoy

John Lemon

Let’s talk about the real “Real McCoy”. We have all heard this phrase to identify well made, honest products versus poorly produced “knock offs”. But, in today’s day and age, not too many know where it came from, or even have a desire to find out.

It is a saying that comes from the name of a man whom, among other things, was an inventor, entrepreneur, and mechanical engineer. His name was Elijah McCoy. His parents escaped slavery in the United States and fled to Ontario, Canada shortly before Elijah’s birth. After he was born, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan in the late 1840s.

In his teens Elijah was sent to Scotland for an education in mechanical engineering, where he excelled in his studies. After completing his education and returning to the United States, even though he was a lettered engineer, no railroad would hire him in that capacity because the folks in charge felt that a black man couldn’t work as an engineer. So, he wound up working in various jobs on trains including being an oilman. An oilman is the person who would get out and oil various joints, gears and fittings on the engine pretty much every time it stopped.

Not to be deterred, Elijah McCoy set up a machine shop in his home. It was in this home workshop where he invented an automatic oiler for trains. A device that worked so well it became the standard in the industry and began the phrase “The Real McCoy”. This was in 1872, in the United States of America.

In all, Elijah McCoy held well over 50 patents, most concerning things in the railroad industry, but also ones dealing with ironing boards, shoe soles, and tire treads.

In 1920, being tired of selling his patents to others, Elijah opened the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit, Michigan.

Elijah’s contributions to our society may not be exciting or thrilling by today’s standard, but in his time he was nationally and internationally known, being heralded as one of the world’s great mechanical minds.

I have written about Mr. McCoy as a contribution to black history, to try and share something I learned as a 5th grader in New London, Missouri back in 1978. Why do I think it’s important to write this? The same reason why a bunch of rural kids in Northeast Missouri were given a lesson on this black inventor. Because it is OUR history, an extremely important part of it.

Realize the prejudice, hatred and hardships Elijah McCoy faced, and yet he succeeded. A black man in 1872 that so positively affected our nation, and the world, that his name is still held to reflect the highest quality. That’s almost 150 years later. People like that are American Heroes. And black history is celebrated every day because of the things that Elijah McCoy, and others, did for our nation. This article is just a brief essay on Elijah McCoy, please take some time to look him up and learn more about his accomplishments.

Which leads me to a final thought about where we are today. Maybe, if we took a little time to educate ourselves about our SHARED history we wouldn’t be so quick to segregate each other based upon identity?