Elijah McCoy

Elijah McCoy (May 2, 1844 to October 10, 1929)

The Canadian born inventor of African-American descent invented a system for continuously lubricating the moving parts of steam trains.

His parents were fugitive slaves who escaped from Kentucky to Canada with the help of the underground railroad.

He was sent to Scotland and trained as a mechanical engineer, returning to work for a railroad company and becoming a prolific inventor.

In Phosphate Rocks I explore the skill of “unskilled” work through the people who worked in a factory.

The three greasers were, each in their own way, a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic.

Fat Willy had probably eaten all of his, along with many deep-fried suppers washed down with pints of heavy. His curly hair and ruddy face waggled atop a spherical body propelled by short legs that lumbered from job to job. He entertained colleagues with musical farts and half-remembered dirty jokes.

The punchlines were often delivered at the last minute by Smart Sandy.

Fat Willy’s sidekick was the same height but a quarter the girth, a dour bald man wearing a permanent scowl that belied an uncomplaining, obliging nature.

Smart Sandy (named ironically) followed Fat Willy’s instructions without question, scaling giant ladders and limbo-dancing under pipes, sometimes to reach a grease nipple, sometimes just for the entertainment of others, oblivious to the laughs and jeers that rewarded his puppet-like antics and ventriloquist dummy one-liners.

The first two kept their distance from the third member of the grease team.

Becksy usually worked alone. Perhaps from preference, but he smelt so bad on Monday mornings that no one really cared to find out. Even if they had wished to ask, the profoundly deaf man could neither read nor write and his version of sign language was not understood in Leith.

Nevertheless, when it came to preventative maintenance, Becksy was the smartest of the crew.

Phosphate Rocks: A Death in Ten Objects by Fiona Erskine is published by Sandstone Press at £8.99 and available from all good bookshops or online here.