Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893, in Covington, Kentucky. It is believed that his mother, who was Black, died while he was a baby. The father, John Jones, was White and of Irish descent and worked on the railroads. When Jones was 8 years old, his father placed him in a boarding school so that he could obtain a proper education, but two years later Jones ran away.
Jones found work at an auto shop. He was big for his age and passed as 14 years old. He was hired to do routine tasks, but he was eager to learn and dreamed of building race cars. He observed the shop mechanics, asked lots of questions, and read car magazines.
Jones tinkered with machines and became very good with creating tools and engine parts. The other mechanics respected his knowledge and technical skills. By the time he really was 14 years old, he was made a full-time mechanic. A year later, the owner of the shop promoted him to foreman.
Jones’s technical abilities, his strong work ethic, and his willingness to study on his own enabled him to obtain numerous jobs throughout his life. Often, he was asked to work on equipment for which he had no formal training, but would read all available information about it, before coming up with a solution.
In December 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota, a small, rural town, with mostly White residents, where he experienced very little racial prejudice. He was able to obtain work and developed friendships with many young persons who were not concerned with his skin color.
Jones became the chief mechanical engineer on a farm of 30,000 acres owned by James Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railroad. The company trained Jones about electricity and on how to operate a steam locomotive engine, so he could pass a State test to obtain his engineer’s license. He later passed the advanced test to obtain the highest grade license for an engineer in Minnesota.
In August 1918, Jones joined the U.S. Army, enlisting in the 809th Pioneer Infantry, a Minnesota regiment. While stationed in France, he was assigned to rewire several camps, maintain the telephone and telegraph systems, and repair vehicles. Corporal Jones was discharged from the army in 1919 and returned to Hallock.
The year before his tour of duty, Jones had developed a race car with advanced features that would take decades before the car industry was using them. Jones used to enter races at county fairs with his car number 15 and quite often won. Upon his return, Jones began racing across the United States and Canada and became a fan favorite. He continued to study electronics and engineering on his own and made money by repairing appliances and wiring houses.
In 1927, as silent films were being replaced by “talkies”, Jones developed a sound system for projectors that was superior to others. This led to employment with Joseph Numero, the owner of the Ultraphone Sound Systems Company in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1938, Jones and Numero co-founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, later known as Thermo King. Jones spent time at the Minneapolis Public Library to read every book he could on refrigeration and air conditioning.
Jones invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks, which made it possible for fresh food to be transported anywhere across the United States without spoiling. Prior to his invention, ice was used to keep food fresh on trucks, but this lasted for only short distances. Air conditioning units for trucks had been tried before, but these would fall apart as the trucks traveled and hit bumps. Jones’s air-conditioned trucks were the first successful ones and revolutionized the trucking industry.
This led to the rapid growth of the frozen food industry, the development of supermarkets, and the expansion of the trucking industry. Many more fresh foods and perishable items could be transported longer distances, which meant that stores could provide many more products.
In 1939, Jones received a patent for the automatic movie ticket dispenser, the first in his own name. He developed over 60 inventions at Thermo King, yet he was not interested in becoming rich and assigned almost all of his inventions to the company. His main interest was to have enough money to be able to devote his time to inventing.
During World War II, Thermo King portable refrigeration units designed by Jones became the standard equipment for the U.S. armed forces. The Defense Department transported these units to combat zones in Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific, so that soldiers could keep food, water, and medical supplies cool. By 1950, Jones would adapt this technology for atmospheric control of railroad boxcars so that food could be kept fresh while transported on trains.
On February 21, 1961, at the age of 68, Jones died of lung cancer. Shortly thereafter, Numero sold Thermo King to the Westinghouse Corporation. On September 16, 1991, President George Bush, Sr. posthumously awarded Jones and Numero with the National Medal of Technology.
The U.S. Patent Office website states that the purpose of this award, now known as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, “is to recognize those who have made lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness, standard of living, and quality of life through technological innovation, and to recognize those who have made substantial contributions to strengthening the Nation’s technological workforce.”
Frederick McKinley Jones was the first African American to receive this honor.
For additional reading:
“I’ve Got an Idea!: The Story of Frederick McKinley Jones,” by Gloria M. Swanson & Margaret V. Ott; Runestone Press and First Avenue Editions c/o The Lerner Group, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1994.
“Man with a Million Ideas,” by Margaret V. Ott & Gloria M. Swanson; Lerner Publications Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1977.
“9 African American Inventors,” by Robert C. Hayden; Twenty-First Century Books, Frederick, Maryland, 1992.