Frederick McKinley Jones, Inventor of Mobile Refrigeration Technology

Frederick McKinley Jones
African American engineer and designer Frederick McKinley Jones works on plans for a thermal control device, 1955. Afro Newspaper/Gado / Getty Images

Frederick McKinley Jones was one of the most prolific black inventors and held over 60 patents at the time of his death. Some of his most important work changed the way we store and transport our food, and altered the transportation and grocery industries forever.

Fast Facts: Frederick McKinley Jones

  • Born: May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Died: February 21, 1961 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • Known For: Inventor who revolutionized the refrigeration industry and held over 60 patents
  • Education: Orphaned at a young age, Jones had little formal education, but he taught himself automobile mechanics and became an engineer
  • Awards and Honors: First African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers, and first African American to be awarded a National Medal of Technology (posthumously) 

Early Years

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893, to an Irish father, John Jones, and an African American mother. By the time he was 7 years old, his mother had deserted the family, and his father sent him to live with a Catholic priest in a rectory in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. While in Kentucky, young Frederick's father passed away, essentially leaving him an orphan.

When he was 11, Jones decided he'd had enough of living with the priest, so he ran away and returned to Cincinnati. During his teen years, he found work doing odd jobs around the city, and soon found he had a natural aptitude for automobile mechanics. He also began to read a lot, although he had little formal education. At 19, he traveled north to a farm in Hallock, Minnesota, where he took a job doing mechanical labor on the farm machinery, and soon was able to obtain an engineering license. When war broke out, Jones enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he was in high demand for his mechanical abilities. He spent much of the war making repairs to machines and other equipment, as well as maintaining communications systems at the front. After his military service ended, he returned to the farm in Minnesota.

Inventions

While living at the Hallock farm, Jones began to take an interest in electronics, and read as much as he could on the subject. According to Biography.com,

"When the town decided to fund a new radio station, Jones built the transmitter needed to broadcast its programming. He also developed a device to combine moving pictures with sound. Local businessman Joseph A. Numero subsequently hired Jones to improve the sound equipment he produced for the film industry."

Numero's company, Cinema Supplies, was excited about Jones' inventions, and within a few years, the two of them would form a partnership.

Frederick McKinley Jones Holding Model Train Car
Frederick McKinley Jones, inventor, refrigeration expert and cofounder of Thermo King Corp., holding a model of his refrigerated railroad car. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Mobile Refrigeration

In the 1930s, it was risky to transport perishable products. Grocery shipments were typically limited to short distances; ice melted quickly, and any sort of electronic refrigeration unit required a layover at a power source, which delayed delivery time. However, by 1938, Jones believed he had found a solution, and in 1940 he obtained a patent for the first practical transport refrigeration unit for the trucking industry.

Jones designed a portable air-cooling device, which included an undercarriage gasoline motor sturdy enough to handle the jolts of long-distance travel. Early modifications made the units even smaller and lighter, and moved them to the over-the-cab mount that is still in use on refrigeration trucks today. Suddenly, people in rural or isolated areas could have access to fresh produce, meat, and dairy items all year long. Further advancements soon led to standardized refrigerated containers which could be utilized on a truck, ship, or train, all without the need of unloading and repacking. The transport refrigeration industry boomed with the creation of these refrigerated boxcars, all of which used Jones' technology.

Together with Numero, who sold Cinema Supplies, Jones formed the U.S. Thermo Control Company, which grew rapidly in the 1940s. During World War II, the company provided refrigeration units that were used to help preserve not only food, but also blood and medicine for the military. In addition, U.S. Thermo Control cooling products were built into the cockpits of bombers and ambulance planes, and also provided air conditioning to personnel in field hospitals. Near the end of the war, Jones became the first African American inducted into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers, and by 1949, U.S. Thermo Control—which later became Thermo King—was worth several million dollars.

Throughout the 1950s, Jones did consultant work for the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Standards, and other branches of the government. Although he is best known for his work with refrigeration units, during his lifetime, Frederick Jones patented over 60 inventions. He created X-ray machines, small and large engines, and sound equipment for radio and film production, generators, and even a machine that dispensed paper tickets.

Jones passed away in Minneapolis, after a battle with lung cancer, on February 21, 1961. In 1977, he was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. Thirty years after his death, President George H.W. Bush awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously to Jones and Numero, presenting the awards to their widows in the White House Rose Garden. Jones was the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology.

Sources

  • “Frederick Jones.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 19 Jan. 2018, www.biography.com/people/frederick-jones-21329957.
  • “Frederick McKinley Jones.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed, Encyclopedia.com, 2019, www.encyclopedia.com/people/science-and-technology/technology-biographies/frederick-mckinley-jones.
  • “Frederick McKinley Jones.” Invent.org, National Inventors Hall of Fame, 2007, www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/343.html.
  • “Frederick McKinley Jones: How Has He Transformed the Scene?” Richard G. (Gurley) Drew, www.msthalloffame.org/frederick_mckinley_jones.htm.