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On Monday, Google featured a doodle of a Black man next to a stack of patents, gazing at an old-fashioned train. That man was Elijah McCoy.
McCoy was a revolutionary Black inventor who was born to parents who had escaped slavery in Kentucky on the Underground Railroad. They would later settle in Canada, where they gave birth to their son in 1844.
At age 15, McCoy traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering. But when he returned home to his family, now living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, he couldn’t find a job as an engineer because of racist laws and institutions against Black people.
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Instead, McCoy went to work as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad, where part of his job was to lubricate engine components.
At that time, engines had to be stopped and lubricated before they could be restarted, the National Inventors Hall of Fame said, which was an inefficient process.
That’s when McCoy’s Black excellence was activated. He had an idea: an automatic lubricator that kept engines oiled while they were in operation.
McCoy patented his invention in 1872 and continued to improve on the design.
The innovation was a hit and found its way into “long-distance locomotives, transatlantic ships, and factory machines,” the hall of fame noted.
Elijah McCoy may have invented more than just car parts.
It is suspected, though not confirmed, that customers who wanted to buy McCoy’s invention specifically – and not an imitation – began asking for “the real McCoy,” a phrase that’s used today to describe something authentic.
Ebonics, slang, and jonesin’ have been around since the beginning of our time. Most of the funniest or wittiest jargon falls from the lips and comes from the souls of Black folks. Our rich oral history keeps stories and ancestors alive. And whether he invented the phrase or not, Elijah McCoy was a real one.