Frederick McKinley Jones (1893?-1961) was known for his mechanical aptitude and his curious and inventive mind. Largely self educated, Jones invented the first refrigerated transport system. This made it possible to ship food via plane, truck, boat or train anywhere in the world without it perishing.
Frederick McKinley Jones was born across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio in Covington, Kentucky, on May 17, 1893 (some sources say 1892). His Irish father, John Jones, worked for the railroad. His African American mother abandoned the family soon after her son was born. Jones exhibited an early mechanical aptitude. The young Jones was extremely adept at taken anything mechanical apart and putting it back together, usually with improved performance. The Jones family struggled in poverty, as permanent work was hard to find and John Jones was challenged with the responsibility of caring for a small child and holding a job.
When Jones was seven years old, his father sent him to live and be educated at the local Catholic church. The elder Jones hoped that his son could receive a good education and find opportunities. At this time, there were no nearby orphanages that would admit an African American boy. Father Ryan, a Catholic priest, cared for Jones and encouraged his interest in mechanics. Jones helped around the church and rectory with cleaning, cooking, maintenance, and grounds work. Father Ryan informed Jones, at the age of nine, that his father had died.
Early Mechanical Aptitude
Jones exhibited an early passion for the mechanics of the automobile. He had an intuitive feeling that he could learn more on his own, through doing, than through traditional teaching methods. Jones would often spend as much time as he could tinkering with and cleaning the wealthy parishioners' cars when they came to church. The personal characteristics of Jones that were to serve him well later included his intellectual curiosity, his ability to ask for help when confounded with a mechanical problem, and his ability to understand the mechanical nature of any machine.
Jones eventually rebelled against the structure and rules of Catholic school and never settled happily there, finding it repetitious and boring. He was 11 years old when he dropped out of school and ran away from the rectory. Jones crossed the river and went back to Cincinnati, immediately picking up employment at an auto garage. The young Jones had a love of the mechanics of cars, and strove to spend as much time learning about autos as possible. He was hired to keep the garage clean but soon demonstrated his natural capability as a mechanic. Jones worked full-time as a mechanic in the garage upon turning 14, the legal age of employment in that state. By the time he was 15, Jones supervised the garage as mechanic foreman. He also became passionately interested in racecar driving, and assisted the owner of the garage with building racing cars. His employer thought that Jones was too young to pursue racing, even though Jones felt otherwise. After a dispute which involved Jones going to the racetrack during work hours, Jones was fired at the age of 19.
For the next 20 years, Jones worked in a number of locations in the Midwest and South. Racial barriers in the South made it particularly difficult for him to find employment in that region. Nonetheless, this period of Jones' life found him working in steamship repair, furnace repair, and farm machinery repair and maintenance. He also continued to work on automobile repair.
Relocated to Rural Minnesota
In 1913, Jones was working as a janitor and repair person for a Minneapolis hotel. A visiting guest, Oscar Younggren, took notice of Jones' ability in repairing a boiler and asked if he would like to serve as a mechanic on Younggren's 50,000-acre family farm. Jones relocated to Hallock and worked on the farm, in charge of maintaining and repairing all machinery and cars. When the farm was sold two years later, Jones remained in the area, finding work repairing cars. He remained in Hallock for the next 18 years, leaving only for World War I. Jones enjoyed his life in Hallock, and became quite involved in the community, participating in civic activities and pursuing a passion for racecar driving. Jones also pursued correspondence study of electrical engineering. He remarked once in the Saturday Evening Post that Hallock was a place "where a man … [was] judged more on his character and ability than on the color of his skin." He continued to work on his inventions and participated in musical groups in the town, but eventually dropped his dreams of racecar driving after nearly having an accident while taking a turn at 100 miles per hour.
When Jones enlisted during World War I, he was initially assigned to an African American unit until the military learned of his mechanical skill. Jones was in great demand in the military and known for his ability to fix anything. He was constantly requested from various military camps for electrical and mechanical work. Jones was in charge of maintaining communications systems at the military front. He worked on military vehicles, repaired X-rays, and completed electrical wiring. After several months Jones was promoted to Sergeant, an extremely high rank for an African American serviceman in those days. He taught classes to other soldiers on the subjects of electrical circuitry.
After World War I, Jones returned to Hallock and continued to work on mechanical projects. He was the town's movie projectionist and developed a sound track unit to accommodate the new sound motion pictures. As film technology continued to change, Jones developed movie sound technology that cost less and performed better than comparable products on the market. With knowledge gained on his own, Jones also built a radio transmitter for Hallock.
Jones' inventions to develop quality movie soundtrack mechanics caused entrepreneur Joseph A. Numero of Minneapolis, to notice the young mechanic's skills. Numero, who headed Cinema Supplies, employed Jones to improve the quality of the sound equipment that the company manufactured. Jones later (on June 17, 1939) was granted his first patent for a movie theater ticket machine that he invented.
Developed Refrigeration for Food Transport
Numero helped to create the situation that led to Jones' greatest achievement—refrigerated transport of food. A business peer, Harry Werner, complained that he was unable to ship food without it perishing. Numero jokingly remarked that Werner needed a refrigerator for his truck, never expecting to be taken seriously. However, Werner purchased an aluminum truck and brought it to Numero and Jones for consideration. Numero thought that the project was impossible, but Jones got into the truck, took some measurements, and quickly concluded that a refrigeration unit could be developed. After some experimentation, Jones developed a refrigeration unit that could withstand shock and could mount to the forehead of a truck. He patented this invention on July 12, 1940. Numero eventually sold Cinema Supplies, Inc. to RCA in order to form a partnership with Jones. Jones and Numero called their new company the U.S. Thermo Control Company. It was later known as the Thermo King Corporation. The partnership went on to earn $3 million by 1949 and in the late 1990s, was still a familiar name and a major contributor to the refrigeration industry.
Although Jones had no formal engineering training, he was known for his ability to work with the engineers at Thermo Control, many with university educations. Jones had no patience for peers who relied too heavily on theory without working on a real problem. He also lacked tolerance for shoddiness and incompetence among employees, even though he never fired a company employee. According to an article in the Saturday Evening Post, Jones' unconventional work style was describes in the following way: "Most engineers start at the bottom of a project and work up, but Fred takes a flying leap too [sic] the top of the mountain and then backs down, cutting steps for himself and the rest of us as he goes."
Impact of Inventions
Jones' revolutionary work in refrigerated food transport led to increased benefits for the food transportation industry and spawned the frozen food industry. Jones eventually developed transportable refrigeration for trains, ships, and planes. The refrigeration units served a significant purpose during World War II and facilitated the transportation of food, blood, and medical supplies around the world to U.S. military personnel and allies. During the Second World War, Jones was advanced to the rank of sergeant and served as an electrician. He continued to develop cooling units that were used, not only for food and medicine, but for airplane cockpits and ambulance planes.
Jones' productive career yielded 61 patents. Forty of these involved refrigeration systems, but Jones also invented portable X-ray equipment, audio equipment, and engines. Many of Jones' inventions changed their industries forever. The condenser microphone was one invention that Jones never patented. The microphone was eventually patented and manufactured by another party. A similar situation occurred when Jones developed a portable X-ray machine at the request of a doctor in Hallock. He never patented the machine, which was later patented by a German.
Jones' cutting edge work as an inventor and a mechanic was recognized in a number of ways. He became the first African American member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers in 1944. During the 1950s, Jones consulted for various branches of the United States government, including the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Standards. Jones' inventions never accumulated massive wealth for him, but he was well regarded by his friends and supporters and known for his generosity and helpfulness. Jones died of lung cancer on February 21, 1961 in Minneapolis. He was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.
Further Reading on Frederick McKinley Jones
Kessler, James, H., J.S. Kidd, Renee A. Kidd, and Katherine A.Morin. Distinguished African American Scientist of the 20th Century, Oryx Press, 1996.
National Cyclopeadia of American Biography, Volume 50, University Microfilms, 1968.
Negro Almanac, A Reference Work on the African American, fifth edition, edited by Harry A. Ploski, Gale Research Inc., 1989.
Notable Black American Men, Jessie Carney Smith, editor, Gale Research Inc., 1999.
Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists, Gale Research, 1995.
Sammons, Vivian Ovelton. Blacks in Science and Medicine, Hemisphere Publishing Corporation, 1990.
World of Invention, 2nd edition, Gale Group, 1999.
Jet, February 16, 1998.
Monkeyshines on America, April, 1992.