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Google honors the Black inventor who likely inspired the phrase 'the real McCoy'

Google doodle honoring inventor Elijah McCoy.
Google/Screenshot by NPR
Google doodle honoring inventor Elijah McCoy.

Pull up Google on Monday, and you'll see a doodle of a Black man next to a stack of patents, gazing at an old-fashioned train.

That's Elijah McCoy, the revolutionary Black inventor who was born 178 years ago today.

McCoy's parents escaped slavery in Kentucky on the Underground Railroad and settled 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, Mich. – he couldn't find a job as an engineer because of his race, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

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 had his big 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 smash hit and found its way into "long distance locomotives, transatlantic ships, and factory machines," the hall of fame noted. But as with most any successful new creation, McCoy's automatic lubricator spawned an array of knock-offs.

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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.