Jones, Frederick McKinley

Jones, Frederick McKinley (1893-1961), African American inventor of the first practical refrigeration system for trucks and railroad cars, a system that completely changed the food transport industry.

Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. His mother died when he was an infant, and his father died about nine years later. He moved to Kentucky, where he lived with a Catholic priest, Father Ryan. Jones did odd jobs in the priest's church and rectory, attending school through grade six. At age 16 he returned to his birthplace in search of a job. He was inclined toward auto mechanics and managed to secure a position as an apprentice mechanic. His natural ability to deal with machinery was supplemented by his independent reading of books on auto mechanics. Three years later, he was foreman of the automobile shop. Moving to Chicago, Illinois, for a brief time in 1912, he worked as a pipefitter before moving to Hallock, Minnesota, to work as a mechanic in a garage that repaired farm machinery. Jones enlisted in the United States Army during World War I, served in France as an electrician, and earned the rank of sergeant. At the end of the war in 1918, he returned to Hallock and took another job as a mechanic working on farm machinery. During the 1920s he mastered electronics through self-study. He gained local recognition for building a radio station transmitter for the town of Hallock and a device for combining sound with motion-picture film. His work came to the attention of Joseph A. Numero in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Numero owned a company that manufactured motion-picture equipment.

In 1930 Jones accepted a job with Cinema Supplies, Inc., in Minneapolis. Sound equipment made by Cinema Supplies was used in movie houses throughout the northern Midwest and in 85 more houses in Chicago. On June 27, 1939, Jones received his first patent, No. 2,163,754, for a ticket-dispensing machine for movie-house tickets. During the late 1930s he worked behind the scenes, designing an air-cooling unit for food transported to market by trucks. His invention led to the formation of a new business, co-owned by Numero and Jones. Numero sold his movie sound equipment business to Radio Corporation of America (RCA). He switched from making movie-house equipment to manufacturing air conditioners for trucks. By 1949 the U.S. Thermo Control Company, founded jointly by Jones and Numero, had grown to a $3-million-a-year business. The company manufactured air coolers for trains, ships, and airplanes to keep foodstuffs from perishing. Jones's invention made it possible for the first time to transport, during any season of the year, meat, fruit, vegetables, eggs, butter, and other items that needed refrigeration over long distances. Jones received a patent on his refrigerating unit on July 12, 1940 (Patent No. 2,475,841). Portable cooling units designed by Jones were used in U.S. Army hospitals and on the battlefield during World War II (1939-1945) to keep blood, medicines, and food at exact refrigerated temperatures.

Jones was awarded more than 60 patents, 40 for refrigeration equipment alone. In 1944 he was elected to membership in the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. During the 1950s he served as a consultant on refrigeration problems to both the United States Defense Department and the Bureau of Standards. Later, trucks transporting perishable foods throughout the United States were equipped with refrigeration units above the truck cab. These units were manufactured by Thermo King Corporation (formerly U.S. Thermo Control Company) of Minneapolis. On June 10, 1977, Jones was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, Redwood Falls, Minnesota. Survived by his widow, Lucille Jones, he died in Minneapolis of lung cancer on February 21, 1961, and was interred at Fort Snelling National Cemetery, Minnesota. Funeral services were conducted by Rabbi Albert Minda of Numero's congregation.

A comprehensive biography is Man with A Million Ideas by Ott and Swanson (1977). See also Robert C. Hayden's Eight Black American Inventors (1972, pp. 44-59); Gopher Historian (Fall 1969), published by the Minnesota Historical Society; and Steven M. Spencer's "Born Handy" (Saturday Evening Post, May 7, 1949, pp. 22-31).

From Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, editors. Copyright 1982 by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


Contributed By:

Robert C. Hayden