The real McCoy

Inventors and gandy dancers. African Americans had a huge impact on the railroad industry. Exhibits at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis show this dichotomy between the African-American experiences with the early railroad.

A video in the exhibit highlights gandy dancers, the low-paid manual laborers who repaired the tracks. In the video, former gandy dancers re-enact their work and the songs that they used to sing as they worked.

Elsewhere in the exhibit, I saw information about three African-American inventors who made significant contributions to the early railroad industry.

Andrew J. Beard (1849-1921), a former slave, invented the first automatic railroad car coupler, which helped bring safety and automation to what was a very dangerous and manual process of coupling train cars.

Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), a free man of African descent, invented a lubricator that could lubricate a train engine while in motion. We have him to thank for the term “real McCoy”. Similar lubricators existed, but Elijah’s lubricator cap was the “real McCoy”.

Granville T. Woods (1856-1910) patented a telegraphony (a combination of a telegraph and telephone) and then later a synchronous multiplex railway telegraph, which allowed messages to be sent to and from a moving train. He was known, the placard mentioned, as the “black Edison”. (“Hmmm,” I thought, “Or Edison was the white Woods.”)

All three men were prolific inventors. Beard disappeared from historical records after patenting his coupler in 1897. McCoy was recognized by Booker T. Washington in 1909 as being the black inventor with the most patents. Woods had the honor of defeating two patent challenges by Edison and then turning down a job offer from him.


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