There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty Nine

Elijah McCoy (1844 – 1929)

Who was the real McCoy?

I have found in my etymological researches that there are often a number of contenders for the origin of a phrase or idiom and it requires a lot of diligence to sort the wheat from the chaff. The real McCoy means the real deal, the original article. One of the contenders for its origin is Elijah McCoy.

But why?

Born to former slaves from Kentucky, who had escaped to freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad, Elijah qualified as an engineer, eventually settling in Michigan.

Looking for work, he could only find a position on the Michigan Central Railroad. The railways operated a strict segregation policy and deemed that a person of colour could not possibly be skilled enough to perform the important role of an engineer. Instead he was deployed as fireman, stoking coal into the voracious boilers of locomotives.

I am of an age to have seen and travelled on steam locomotives.

The sense of power and the great plumes of smoke, environmentally unfriendly, for sure, were thrilling for a small boy and I loved standing on a bridge to be enveloped by the smoke from a train thundering by.

The railways played their part in opening up countries, facilitating the speedy transfer of goods, encouraging the development of suburbia, and spearheading the concept of leisure time and holidays for ordinary people.

One of the principal issues with steam engines was that their many moving parts needed to be oiled and lubricated on a regular basis. And to do that, the early locomotives had to stop and be serviced, impacting the reach and performance of the engines and eating into the profits of railway operators.

The first person to apply successfully their grey cells to the problem of lubricating a steam engine on the move was Englishman, John Ramsbottom, who, in 1860, came up with the displacement lubricator.

It used the steam from the engine to enter a valve containing oil, pushing the oil out on to the moving parts. Adopted by the Great Western Railway, its principal problems were that you could not regulate the flow of lubricant and that it only worked when the engine had a head of steam.

Working away in a little workshop at his home in Ypsilanti in his leisure hours, Elijah investigated ways in which he could automate the lubrication of a steam engine’s moving parts in a more efficient way than Ramsbottom’s device.

By 1872 he had come up with what he described as a “lubricating cup,” which dripped oil when and where it was required or which, as he described it more verbosely in his patent application, “provides for the continuous flow of oil on the gears and other moving parts of a machine to keep it lubricated properly and continuous and thereby do away with the necessity of shutting down the machine periodically.

The patent (US Patent 129, 843, “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines”) was granted in 1872.

It was well received and orders flooded in from railway operators around the States. Despite the patent, the actual device was easily replicable and with modest alterations other manufacturers were able to come up with rival lubricators. However, such was the quality and efficiency of Elijah’s lubricator that train operators insisted on getting their hands on the real McCoy, or so it is claimed.

Lack of capital dogged Elijah.

He continually modified and enhanced the lubricator, making it capable of being used on a variety of other machines such as ships, oil drilling rigs and mining equipment, accumulating some fifty or so patents. But to fund the work, he often had to sell his patents or at least a percentage stake in them. It was not until 1920 that he established his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, following his development of a graphite inductor which allowed the latest generation of locomotives to be lubricated.

Curiously, he was barely mentioned in the literature about lubrication in the early 20th century, being entirely written out of the pages of E L Ahron’s Lubrication of Locomotives, published in 1922, almost certainly on the grounds of his race.

And then tragedy struck.

In 1922, Elijah and his wife, Mary, were injured in a serious car accident, Mary fatally, and from then on until his death in 1929, Elijah was dogged with financial, physical, and mental problems.

And was he the real McCoy?

I’m not sure. A variant of the phrase, with an identical meaning, appeared in a Scottish poem, Deil’s Hallowe’en, dating to 1856; “a drappie o’ the real McKay”, McKay being a whisky. The phrase appeared frequently in Scottish newspapers in the 1860s. Elijah may have been a worthy substitute, given the quality of his lubricators, but cannot have been the reason why the phrase came about in the first place.

If you enjoyed, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone


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