from The Textbook Letter,
The Fake McCoy
Lawrence S. Lerner
In the teacher's edition of Prentice Hall's Motion, Forces, and
Energy, page 89 provides a "Multicultural Opportunity" -- an
opportunity that the teacher should ignore:
William J. Bennetta
Without lubrication, many machines would soon cease to function.
The "father of lubrication" is Elijah McCoy, an African-American
Born May 2, 1884, in Canada, McCoy traveled to Scotland to serve
as an apprentice engineer. McCoy then settled in Michigan, hoping
to pursue a career in engineering, but faced widespread prejudice.
The only position he could find was that of fireman on the Michigan
Central Railroad, where he was responsible for oiling the engine.
At that time, large machinery was periodically shut down so that it
could be thoroughly lubricated. McCoy considered this a waste of
time and put his engineering skills to work to design a continuous
drip lubrication process.
In time, the drip lubricator became such a standard feature on
machinery that prospective buyers would ask, "Is it the real
That story is bogus. It is false in every important aspect, and
this can be shown easily:
- Drip lubricators, as well as injectors that continuously
sprayed oil into the cylinders of steam engines, were certainly in
use by the late 1700s. If there had been no
continuous-lubrication devices, no engine could have run for more than a few
minutes without breaking down. Steam locomotives would not have
been practical, because no locomotive could have gone more than a
few miles without being ruined. And McCoy's employer, the
Michigan Central, would not have existed.
- The origin of the phrase the real McCoy is uncertain, and
scholarly sources cite several possibilities. None of these
involves an inventor, however. The Dictionary of Cliches says
Take your pick. One real McCoy was a late 19th-century boxer who
fought under the name of Kid McCoy and was so good that other
fighters adopted the name, whereupon he had to bill himself as
"the real McCoy." Or it was a Scotch whisky made by A. & M.
MacKay of Glasgow (in the United Kingdom the saying is "the real
MacKay"). Yet another idea is that the expression came from
heroin originating in Macao.
In Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, this thought: Maybe
the real McCoy is a corruption of the real Mackay, a Scottish
phrase that recalls disputes about who was the true chief of the
Mackay clan. Only one thing is clear: The history of the real
McCoy is obscure.
Where did Prentice Hall get its bogus tale? A Prentice Hall
editor told us that it had been contributed by Steven J. Rakow, an
associate professor in the School of Education at the University of
Houston, Clear Lake. (Rakow's name appears on page 3 of Motion,
Forces, and Energy, under the heading "Multicultural Consultant.")
When we called Rakow, he said that the tale had come from A Salute to
Black Scientists and Inventors, a booklet issued in 1985 by Empak
Publishing Company (in Chicago). We telephoned Empak, but we were
unable to find anyone who had taken part in the writing of Black
Scientists. Deborah Green, Empak's director of marketing, told us
that the people who had created the booklet were no longer with the
company. She said the booklet was based on "research," but she
couldn't suggest how we might learn about the research or the
researchers. Empak, she said, does not "keep contact" with its
In its current catalog, Empak calls itself "a leading publisher of
Black history materials." Besides booklets, the materials include
videos, posters, banners, T-shirts and a board game. We have
examined five of the booklets, one of which is Black Scientists.
The four others deal with black pioneers, black women, blacks in
the arts, and African royalty. Each booklet has about 30 pages and
consists chiefly of biographical sketches. Some of the stuff in
these sketches is stupid, to say the least. (In Black Scientists,
for example, crop-rotation is called "plant rotation" and is
depicted as an idea originated by George Washington Carver! And
the account of "plant rotation" makes no sense: Legumes somehow
"brought nitrogen to the soil," thus replenishing "the minerals.")
There is no way to know where any of Empak's material has come
from, because the booklets don't cite any sources.
We fail to see how anyone could take the booklets seriously. We
fail to see how anyone could read them without recognizing that
they are exercises in story-telling, not scholarship. And we fail
to see why anyone would transfuse "information" from an Empak
booklet into a schoolbook.
Are Prentice Hall's people really as gullible or irresponsible as
The tale of Elijah McCoy in Black Scientists shows some of the
same nonsense that we've seen in Prentice Hall's version. Until
McCoy invented a "lubricator cup" in the 1870s, Empak says, "all
motorized machinery" had to be stopped for lubrication. Empak
also says flatly that the real McCoy commemorates Elijah's
products; there is no sign that Empak actually tried to learn
about that phrase's history.
On the other hand, the two tales show some differences. Empak
says that McCoy was born in 1843 (not 1884), and Empak does not
call him "the father of lubrication." Maybe the Prentice Hall
crew devised that silliness all by themselves.
What, if anything, did McCoy really do? Maybe he did something
important, even if Prentice Hall's writers don't know what it was.
Or maybe he did nothing important at all; maybe he built some
trivial gadget that Empak has glorified beyond recognition. In
either case, we ask this: Why patronize blacks, and mislead
students, with fabrications? If one wants to show that blacks
have made major contributions to engineering, one has numerous,
genuine cases to choose from, as the Prentice Hall writers will
learn if they ever look into the matter.
Lawrence S. Lerner is a professor in the Department of Physics and
Astronomy at California State University, Long Beach. He served on
the panel that wrote the current framework for science education in
California's public schools, and he is a director of The Textbook
William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the
California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook
League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes
frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and
false "history" in schoolbooks.
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