Posted on May 12, 2014
Elijah McCoy may be the guy that the phrase “the real McCoy” refers to. He was an inventor with 57 U.S. patents to his name. One of those inventions, an oil-drip cup for lubrication, as popular enough that railroad engineers would ask for it by name. “The real McCoy” means the real thing – so it seems likely that the engineers would ask, “Does this locomotive have the real McCoy system?”
(But, as in most cases of language evolution, there are other suggested origins of the phrase, too. “The real MacKay” is a phrase used in Scotland in the 19th Century—first recorded in 1856. “The real McCoy” was first seen in print in a Canadian magazine in 1881. As you will see, Elijah McCoy had connections to both Scotland and Canada.)
McCoy was born in 1884. He was born free in Ontario, Canada, to fugitive slaves who had escaped from Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad. When he was just three years old, McCoy's family moved to back to the U.S., settling in Michigan.
When he was 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, to learn to be a mechanical engineer. He served as an apprentice and earned certification. When he returned to the U.S., he worked as a fireman and oiler on the railroads. But his real work – the stuff he is remembered for – was tinkering in his home-based machine shop. And, like I said, inventing ways to do things better.
On this date in 1874, McCoy received a patent for a fold-up ironing board. Most of what he invented had to do with lubrication systems, but he also invented a lawn sprinkler.
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