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Spring 2024


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The Culture of the Copy excerpted in The MIT Press Reader
The Many Lives of Norman Selby, the “Real McCoy”

In a recent post for the MIT Press Reader blog, read an excerpt of The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles by Hillel Schwartz. Click here to learn more about the book. Click here to read the full excerpt. A section appears below:

“The more adroit we are at carbon copies, the more confused we are about the unique, the original, the Real McCoy.

We don’t even know who the Real McCoy was. Some say it was Elijah McCoy, born in 1843 within a community of African Americans who had escaped to Canada from slavery in the South. Taking ship to Scotland, McCoy apprenticed to a mechanical engineer. Upon his return across the Atlantic, the job he found with the Michigan Central Railroad was as a fireman, stoking the engine, but between 1872 and 1882 he was awarded patents on an automatic engine lubricating device of such reliability that it was known to the industry as ‘The Real McCoy.’ He became a patent consultant to the railroads and moved to Detroit, where after a long life he died alone and penniless in an infirmary in 1929.

Some say it was Bill McCoy, a sailor ‘with the heart of a mischievous, authority-scorning, rather gallant small boy.’ Six-foot-two, he was the Robin Hood of the Bahamas between 1919 and 1924, carrying 175,000 cases of rum across the Caribbean in the hold of his schooner, then selling the liquor on the high seas to rumrunners who smuggled it into Prohibition America, where it would be watered down four-to-one. ‘His erstwhile associates,’ wrote a friend in 1931, ‘have epitomized his square crookedness in a phrase that has become a part of the nation’s slang: ‘The Real McCoy’ — signifying all that is best and most genuine.’”