Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The rail McCoy

Creation: Spring & Easter
The train doesn't wait for the passenger. (Mozambique)

I love traveling by trains – the scenery, the space to move around, the knowledge that I don’t have to take of my shoes and my luggage won’t get lost. A couple of days ago I passed the now abandoned train station in Kingston, Jamaica, and remembered the excitement I used to feel at the start of a journey from Kingston to Montego Bay. These days, I take my train journeys when I visit the UK or the US, and my best treats are the relatively long train trips like London to Edinburgh or Los Angeles to San Francisco.

Black inventor Elijah McCoy contributed significantly to railroad travel. He invented a system of lubrication that served engines so well that some say people would demand “the real McCoy”. Others say that term existed long before Elijah put his stamp on it. They say the original McCoy was a Scotsman called “McKay”, or else a boxer or a rum runner also called McCoy.

But my best McCoy, my real McCoy is Elijah.

He was born in 1843 or 1844 in Canada. He was the child of slaves who left Kentucky and traveled north by Underground Railroad. His father joined the British army since Canada was a British colony at the time. For his service, he received 160 acres of farmland on which he raised his family of twelve children.

Elijah’s ambition was to be an engineer, and he went to Scotland for an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering. By this time, his family had moved back to the US because slavery had officially ended. They settled in Detroit, Michigan. However, racism prevented Elijah from getting a job as an engineer, and he settled for work as a railroad fireman and oiler. As a fireman he had to shovel coal into the train’s firebox, and as an oiler he had to lubricate the moving parts of the train in order to prevent over-heating.

In 1872, Elijah received a patent for a device that would lubricate the engine of a moving train. Before that, the train had to come to a full stop for the oiler to do his work. With this invention, railroads saved time and money as train engines lasted longer and needed less maintenance. Even ships and transatlantic liners adopted Elijah’s lubricating cup.

In 1915, he upgraded his invention with a lubricator that saved on fuel and reduced wear and tear on engines. By this time, other inventors were offering lubricators comparable to Elijah’s, but none was “the real McCoy”.

Investors in Elijah’s inventions earned millions of dollars, but not much of that money reached him. He suffered mental and financial breakdown, and died in an infirmary in 1929. Almost fifty years later, Detroit honored him with a street named after him, and an Elijah McCoy Day.

Those of us who love train journeys would also do well to honor this man.

No comments:


When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it. (Proverb from Rwanda and Burundi)

Welcome to this space where we can talk about proverbs that we can relate to (or not), and proverbs that make sense to us (or not). Most of all we can discuss how proverbs make us think about life and living. We can also share experiences of proverbs that have provided us with lifelines or just the chance to reflect.

Some of the proverbs here may also be found in "Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs", published by Random House and authored by Askhari Johnson Hodari and me. The foreword is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the unique features of our book is that we arranged the proverbs according to life cycle, in sections including, Birth, Childhood, Love, Marriage, and Intimacy, Challenge, and Death.

For more proverbs and for information on Lifelines: the Black Book of Proverbs, please visit us at