Frederick McKinley Jones

views updated May 21 2018

Frederick McKinley Jones

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

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. □

Jones, Frederick McKinley

views updated May 29 2018

Frederick McKinley Jones


Inventor, refrigeration engineer

As one of the unsung heroes of twentieth-century industrial science, Frederick McKinley Jones was a self-taught electrician and inventor who held sixty-one patents, forty of them in refrigeration technology. His most significant contribution to the modern age was an air-conditioning unit for trucks and other cargo carriers, an invention that helped launch the frozen-foods industry.

Jones was born in 1893 in Covington, Kentucky, although one source cites his birthplace as Cincinnati, Ohio, which is just across the Ohio River from Covington, and others claim he was born in 1892. Little is known about his mother except that she was African American and may have been unable to care for him herself, so she left him with his white father, John Jones, who worked for the railroad. As a youngster, Jones demonstrated a fascination with all things mechanical and, if left on his own, would disassemble anything in the house to see how it worked. When he was seven years old, his Irish-Catholic father sent him to live with priests at the West Covington Roman Catholic Church and School to bring some discipline and education into his life. John Jones died two years later, and two years after that, when Jones was eleven, he ran away from the West Covington rectory.

Across the river in Cincinnati, Jones found work in a garage that repaired carriages, and when his mechanical skills became apparent, he trained as a mechanic and was a full-time employee there by the age of fourteen. Eventually, he was promoted to foreman at the garage. During this period, around 1910, horse-drawn carriages were rapidly being replaced by gasoline-powered vehicles, and Jones proved his aptitude for diagnosing and solving issues with this new technology, too. In his spare time, he retooled conventional vehicles into amateur race cars and piloted his creations on the dirt tracks that were the standard proving grounds for auto enthusiasts and engineers during that era. He quit racing when he was in his early thirties, after a particularly bad crash.

Settled in Northern Minnesota

Jones left Cincinnati and eventually began working on a Mississippi River steamship based in St. Louis. By the time he reached his twentieth birthday in 1913, he was employed by a Minneapolis hotel as its janitor and boiler operator. His mechanical talents were noticed by the hotel guest Oscar Younggren, who offered him a position as master mechanic on a fifty-thousand-acre farm in Minnesota's Red River Valley. Jones spent the next eighteen years in the town of Hallock, located in a fertile slice of Minnesota near the border it shared with North Dakota and Canada, leaving only to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I. He was assigned to an all-black unit, but once again his abilities caught the attention of his superiors, and he spent his time maintaining and repairing communications and other electronic equipment for several army units.

Returning to Hallock after the war, Jones worked as a mechanic and as the town's movie projectionist while studying electrical engineering via a correspondence course. He was also married for a time, to a woman of Swedish heritage. In a place where minorities were scarce, Jones found Hallock and its residents tolerant and welcoming to him, later saying in a Saturday Evening Post interview by Steven M. Spencer that there "a man…[was] judged more on his character and ability than on the color of his skin." He was a member of the village band and a choral quartet, and he replaced his passion for auto racing with the more sedate pastimes of hunting and fishing.

Working as the projectionist for the local movie theater in Hallock, Jones devised a piece of equipment that eased the transition from silent films to "talking" ones, as the first sound pictures were called in the late 1920s. To show the new sound movies, theater operators needed to buy a new, prohibitively expensive piece of equipment that let audiences hear the soundtrack in synchronization with the images. Hallock's theater was unable to afford this, so Jones built one on his own for less than $100, which offered better sound quality than its more expensive counterparts. This and a few more improvements in the movie-theater realm brought him to the attention of the Minneapolis company Cinema Supplies in 1930. Its president, Joseph Numero, offered him a job, and Jones took it and moved back to Minnesota's largest urban center. A few years later, he began applying for and receiving patents for his inventions. The first was granted in 1939 for a ticket-dispensing machine that returned change, which was still in use in the early 1990s.

"We Were Stuck with It"

Jones's most lasting achievement came about as the result of a conversation on a golf course. In 1938 Numero was out on the links with two business associates, one of them a trucking-company executive named Harry Werner. Werner suggested to the third golfer, who was in the air-conditioning business, that he should devise a method to prevent poultry and other food products from spoiling on long-distance hauls. At that time, huge blocks of ice were used to keep food shipments cold, but this method had the obvious disadvantage in that the ice only lasted so long during the summer months. Werner's suggestion led to a discussion about how to refrigerate a trailer-truck, and at one point Numero playfully proposed building a refrigeration unit for Werner's trucks. Werner accepted the proposal and had one of his trucks delivered to Cinema Supplies for a tryout. Numero told Spencer that when he heard Werner had sent him a truck to be fitted with some sort of cooling unit, "I expected to give it a quick once over and tell Werner it couldn't be done. But Jones beat me to it. He climbed into the trailer, made some measurements and calculations, and popped his head out to announce he guessed he could fix up something. And we were stuck with it."

Jones's idea was a refrigeration unit that was mounted in the front of the truck and had the crucially advantageous feature of being shockproof. It was granted U.S. Patent No. D 132,182 on July 12, 1940, and became the cornerstone for a new venture that Numero and Jones founded together: the U.S. Thermo Control Company. The firm's first refrigerated trucks were used to transport food to troops during World War II, and in the postwar decade during the building of the U.S. interstate system, the company grew immensely as frozen foods became a staple of the supermarket industry. Jones's invention also allowed dairy and meat products to be transported hundreds of miles from their point of origin, which revolutionized the way that people in most developed nations ate.

At a Glance …

Born Frederick McKinley Jones on May 17, 1893 (some sources say 1892), in Covington, KY; died of lung cancer, February 21, 1961, in Minneapolis, MN; son of John Jones (a railroad worker); first marriage to a Swedish-American woman in Minnesota ended in divorce; married Lucille, 1946. Military service: U.S. Army during World War I and World War II, reached the rank of sergeant.

Career: Cincinnati repair garage, sweeper, around 1904, became automobile mechanic then foreman; worked on a Mississippi River steamship based in St. Louis, after 1910; hotel in Minneapolis, janitor and boiler-maintenance technician; became master mechanic for a fifty-thousand-acre farm near Hallock, Minnesota, around 1913; mechanic and movie projectionist in Hallock, around 1918-30; Cinema Supplies, Minneapolis, MN, 1930; U.S. Thermo Control Company, founding partner, 1938; consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards after 1945.

Awards: U.S. National Medal of Technology laureate (posthumous), 1991.

Even though he was in his late forties when the United States entered World War II, Jones served once again in the U.S. Army. However, instead of being assigned combat duty, he spent the war working on several new inventions. These included portable cooling units that were used by army medics to keep medicines and blood serum chilled and safe; similar units were installed in the cockpits of B-29 aircraft to keep the pilots from sweltering. After the war, Jones worked as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards.

Jones died of lung cancer on February 21, 1961, in Minneapolis. He was survived by his second wife, Lucille. That same year, Numero sold Thermo Control, which became the Thermo King Corporation, to the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. Thermo King remained a leader in manufacturing transport temperature control systems, and became part of the Ingersoll Rand family of companies in 1997. In 2007 it opened a new Minneapolis research and development facility and named the $7.1 million building in honor of Jones. "Our R&D facility is not yet complete, and it never will be complete," said Ingersoll Rand senior vice president Steve Shawley in the industry journal Refrigerated Transporter. "We operate in a reliability culture, driven by the need to optimize and improve the reliability of the overall cold chain. That is our simple goal, our simple quest, made possible by Frederick McKinley Jones."



Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, vol. 20, Gale, 2000.

Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.

Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Gale, 2001.


Refrigerated Transporter, August 1, 2007.

Saturday Evening Post, May 7, 1949, pp. 153-155.


"Frederick M. Jones (1893-1961): Refrigeration Technology," Inventor of the Week, (accessed May 13, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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