Stories tagged Elijah McCoy

Feb
02
2006

Elijah McCoy
Elijah McCoy

It's an annual tradition here at The Science Museum. Every February for Black History Month we roll out a panel honoring Black Americans in science. And every February, Gene complains that the panel contains an error.

Part of the panel pays tribute to Elijah McCoy. The son of runaway slaves, McCoy studied engineering and went on to invent many devices, including a lubricator for railroad engines.

The panel also cites Elijah's invention as the origin of the phrase "the real McCoy." Unfortunately, that does not seem possible:

  • The phrase first appears in Scotland, in the form "the real McKay," in 1856, when Elijah was only 12 years old.
  • The phrase changed from "McKay" to "McCoy" around 1908 — more than 30 years after Elijah patented his invention.
  • The lubricators were not sold under the McCoy name until 1920, well after the phrase had become established.
  • Elijah's name was not connected to the phrase until 1985.

Make no mistake — Elijah McCoy's inventions were a boon to railroading. It's only right that we honor his contribution to engineering. But, as a science museum, we really need to be more careful with the facts. It's a small thing, but as a label writer, mistakes like this bug me.

(NOTE: I am writing this post from the wilds of mid-Michigan. I haven't seen the panel this year — it's possible that the error has been corrected. If so, I will amend this post.)