A free black man born in Canada in 1844, Elijah McCoy was an inventor and a certified mechanical engineer. He was an inveterate “tinkerer”; a maker of things and builder of dreams. We love contraptions in the theme park business; stuff that moves people, thrills people and immerses them in a space in which they’ve never been. Elijah McCoy is a brother.
Elijah’s most famous invention was an automatic lubrication device for steam locomotives. I think you all know that I love steam as much as I love theme parks and I especially love steam trains IN theme parks. After all that’s where I met my wife Rita, a conductor on the Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad just a few short decades ago. And as much as I love steam in theme parks I especially love Rita so you won’t be surprised to know that Elijah McCoy, he who made possible the proliferation of the steam age is one of my favorite inventors. What I like about him is the same thing I love about Louis Armstrong: Authenticity.
I was meeting with some folks about immersive spaces, education and history just a few days ago. At a previous work session we were knocking around the idea of festival events and themed environments and someone who is much smarter than I will ever be asked me an interesting question: “How can a produced cultural event bill itself as “authentic” when it is all staged?”
Rita and I spent a couple of nights last week at Market Street Tavern on Duke of Gloucester Street in Colonial WIlliamsburg and it was authentic. Jefferson (“TJ” as we call him in Charlottesville) slept in that very building. Across the street at Chowning’s I was thrilled to listen to a fabulous musician playing a Serpent, an ancient “brass” instrument that is the precursor of the Tuba. His instrument had been viewed, “eyes on” by Napoleon. Well that’s authentic. On the other hand I enjoyed the air conditioning in the tavern and appreciated the fact that they sweep the (paved) streets at night to keep the horse litter to a minimum. Not authentic.
The Museum of Appalachia outside of my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge Tennessee has lots of authentic buildings, crafts, tools and interpreters. Yet the buildings mostly came from someplace else. Authentic? I think so because of the story they tell. Colonial WIlliamsburg features (largely) recreated buildings stood up in original locations; it is absolutely an authentic recreation of a town that had not existed for many years. Walt Disney famously walked through it one day and thought to himself….."Huh….you can recreate a space from the past and make it real”. I think the idea of building the Main Street of his childhood started to form at that moment.
Listening to an Appalachian String Band in a Blue Ridge country meeting house in celebration of a friend’s 80th birthday I chuckled as he walked up to me with a plastic cup and said: “I’d like you to meet the Real McCoy”. I smiled and looked at the contents: crystal clear and locally made, the real deal “moonshine” tasted better than I ever could have imagined. The Real McCoy indeed. So what do we mean by “authentic”?
Well if you are Louis Armstrong you play from the heart; nothing gets in the way; your instrument is simply a window to your soul. If you’re Colonial WIlliamsburg you pour yourself into creating an experience that is so true to the original, so perfect in the smallest detail that enabling that experience with modern convenience simply doesn’t matter. If you’re John Rice Irwin whose vision is the Museum of Appalachia you bring together people like Alex Haley and every other conceivable human being and artifact who are the essence of the history of the hills of Tennessee and tell a story of resilience and laughter, music and faith. Totally authentic.
If you’re Elijah McCoy you live a life that celebrates the gifts you’ve been given and change the course of history. Your name becomes synonymous with authenticity, “the real deal”. The phrase, “The Real McCoy”, coined by railroaders who had been burned by cheap imitation equipment that was not McCoy’s authentic automated lubrication device with its 70+ patents that changed the world, will forevermore define authenticity; the real thing. What you see is what you get. The Real McCoy.
Be authentic; create experiences that transcend any need for explanation. Whatever your message: education, thrills, history or marine science be authentic and true to the spirit of who you are. Make sure that every element of craft, every detail of your message is true. Embrace authenticity and become The Real McCoy.
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