This Prolific Inventor Helped Give Us The Phrase “The Real McCoy”

There are many stories about how we got this phrase. But there was only one Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy. Ypsilanti Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons

Elijah McCoy was the real McCoy. Maybe.

The inventor held 57 United States patents, mostly related to the railway. His inventions, which were not headline-making outside the field of steam engines, were so associated with quality and good function that people began using “the real McCoy” to refer to quality products.

Like many other black inventors, McCoy faced racism and exclusion in his work, but his lengthy career was a successful one.  

McCoy was born on this day in 1843 to George and Emilia McCoy, former slaves from Kentucky who had escaped to Canada on the Underground Railroad. After living in Ontario for several years, the family moved to Detroit following the Civil War. Elijah was educated in the city and in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He eventually came back to the States and ended up working for the Michigan Central Railroad. Although McCoy was educated as an engineer, writes the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame, the discriminatory management of the railroad thought a black man couldn’t be an engineer, and he was hired to work in the boiler room of trains as a fireman.

Then in 1872, McCoy invented and patented an automatic oiling device for the moving parts of steam locomotives, colloquially known as the “oil-drip cup.”

“McCoy’s patented device was quickly adopted by the railroads, by those who maintained steamship engines and many others who used large machinery,” writes the University of Michigan. “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, the university writes.

McCoy used some of the money from ventures associated with his first patent to continue inventing, coming up with mostly railway-related inventions but also an improved ironing board. 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 come up with ideas.

When he was 72 years old, in 1916, he patented the “graphite lubricator” which was a mixture of graphite and oil that worked well in the period’s “superheater” locomotives, but he didn’t establish his own company to make some of his inventions until 1920. Unfortunately, he was greatly injured in a 1922 accident that also killed his wife, and, writes the railway hall of fame, he died in 1929 after suffering financial, physical and mental problems.

In recent years, McCoy’s legacy was honored when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and when a patent office in Detroit was named after him. But his most widely known legacy—the "real McCoy" phrase—is less certain. Although some modern sources have attributed the phrase to him, the Canadian encyclopedia says the phrase’s origin story is unclear.

“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 Co., a distiller which used “the real Mackay” as a promotional slogan. Maybe the most generous interpretation is to say they were all the real thing.

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