On this day in 1874, African American inventor Elijah McCoy is granted US patent #150,876 for the ironing table, saving housewives hours of back-breaking labour. The resourceful inventor is so prolific and renowned for his useful inventions that his name is reportedly appropriated for the phrase, “the real McCoy,” meaning “the real thing.”
The child of fugitive slaves who had escaped Kentucky to Canada via the Underground Railroad, McCoy was born in Colchester, Ontario, in 1844. McCoy was raised in Michigan and trained in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he was certified as a “master mechanic and engineer.” He returned to his parents and 11 siblings in Michigan, where he worked as a fireman and oiler at the Michigan Central Railroad. He was responsible for fueling the steam engine and lubricating the engine’s moving parts including its axels and bearings. But his ambitions were greater than the work he could find, so McCoy worked in his own home shop developing inventions. McCoy noticed that trains needed to stop periodically to be lubricated in order to prevent overheating. So he worked in his home shop to develop a steam-pressured lubricator for steam engines that didn’t require the train to stop. “Improvement in Lubricators for Steam-Engines,” US Patent #129,843, was one of his best-known inventions.
Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention, even if it isn’t the inventor’s own necessity. When McCoy’s second wife, Mary Eleanor Delaney (his first, Elizabeth Stewart, died after four years of marriage), complained that ironing clothes on uneven surfaces was difficult, McCoy set out to alleviate her frustrations. He invented a portable ironing board, much like the one still in use today. On 12 May 1874 he received a patent for it, pleasing his wife and hundreds of thousands of housewives since.
In 1920 McCoy went on to establish the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company, through which he would obtain some 57 patents in his lifetime, including the lawn sprinkler and a locomotive lubricator.
McCoy died in 1929 at the age of 86 from injuries he had sustained years earlier in a car accident. Each time someone asks for “the real McCoy,” the renowned African American inventor is celebrated for the prolificacy and quality of his inventions.