Frederick McKinley Jones
May 17, 1893 – February 21, 1961
Frederick McKinley Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio the child of an African American mother and Irish American father. Unfortunately, his mother abandoned the family when he was quite young. Jones’s father attempted to raise him on his own for a few years but ended up leaving him at the age of seven to be cared for by a priest in Kentucky. His father died two years later when Jones was nine years old.
Sources vary about the details of his life in the five years following his father’s death. One source states that Jones spent a total of four years in the care of the priest before running away at the age of 11. And that while living with the priest, Jones attended school but his formal education ended when he left. Another source states that he remained in the care of the priest until the age of 16.
Seemingly without family and now fending for himself, Jones supported himself by working odd jobs in Cincinnati. Despite his limited formal education, Jones possessed both curiosity about and natural ability with mechanics. Beginning as a janitor/mechanic’s helper in a garage, Jones dedicated himself to learning as much as he could and observed the mechanics while they worked. He also carved out time for self-education and read voraciously about cars. Jones eventually learned enough to become the shop’s foreman and also found success racing cars that he built.
At the age of 19, Jones found a job in Hallock, Minnesota as a farm equipment mechanic and qualified for an engineering license. Jones thrived in Hallock as despite being predominantly White and the era, most of the townspeople were more concerned with his mechanical skills than his race. He left the area to serve as a U.S. Army mechanic during World War I but also gained experience as an electrician.
Upon his return to Hallock, Jones became more deeply involved with electronics. While stationed in France, he installed electricity, phone, and telegraph wiring. He continued his practice of combining hands-on experience and experimentation with reading about electronics. When the town decided to establish a radio station he built the transmitter.
Unfortunately, at this time Jones was doing what he could to support himself as he was not capitalizing on his creations. He chauffeured doctors as they made house calls during Minnesota’s cold and snowy winters. Difficulty navigating the snow motivated him to create a more efficient transportation device. He procured the body of an old airplane to which he attached a pair of skis, an airplane propeller, and a motor. This mobile device which easily glided over the snow was referred to as Jones’s “snow machine”. Years later someone else would create and patent a similar device which would come to be known as a “snowmobile”.
Similarly, a doctor mentioned the hassle of patients coming into the office for x-rays. Jones created a solution for adapting x-ray machines to make them mobile. Once again, Jones failing to file a patent for his invention would result in someone developing and registering a similar device which would make them very wealthy. Jones would continue to design and develop a variety of innovative devices but it would be quite some time before he began to file for patents.
A local resident, Joseph A. Numero, owned a business that provided sound equipment for the movie industry. After Jones invented devices that allowed silent movie projectors to play audio, Numero hired him to improve existing and create new devices for the film industry. One such invention dispensed tickets and change, the patent was later acquired by RCA.
In no danger of running out of ideas, Jones would learn to patent his inventions and strike gold. According to legend, in the 1930s Jones desired to create a method for cooling cars and trucks to make them comfortable for passengers on warm drives. This was basically what we now know as “air conditioning”.
Up to this point, ice was used to keep perishable goods cool during transport. But the ice would often melt in warm or hot conditions causing the food to spoil. This affected the distance and conditions under which food could be transported. Jones and Numero co-founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company and Jones began reading every book he could find at the library about electricity and refrigeration.
Several years earlier, Jones had begun working on a self-starting motor which he patented in 1949. Building on that device he developed a portable automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks which was later adapted for railcars and ships. This mobile refrigeration device would come to be known as the “Thermo-King”. Jones’s invention had a tremendous impact on food consumption as meat and produce could now be transported anywhere in the world regardless of weather conditions. It was also useful during World War II as it helped safely transport blood and medicine.
Frederick McKinley Jones died from lung cancer on February 21, 1961, at the age of 68. His inventions and improvements were awarded over 60 patents with most in the area of refrigeration and the rest spanning a variety of industries. Refrigeration products developed under the Thermo-King brand would generate millions of dollars for the company. Numero sold the business to Westinghouse after Jones’s death and it still exists today. Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology becoming the first African American to receive the award.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2020. “Frederick Jones.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 23, 2020. https://www.biography.com/inventor/frederick-jones.
- Blue, Christopher. 2021. “Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961.” Blackpast.org. February 28, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/jones-frederick-mckinley-1893-1961/.
- Clancy, CJ. 2022. “Frederick McKinley Jones: First African-American Awarded National Medal of Technology .” IrishCentral.com. April 11, 2022. https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/frederick-mckinley-jones.
- “Frederick Jones.” n.d. Lemelson. Accessed August 29, 2022. https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/frederick-jones.
- “Frederick McKinley Jones, Inventor Born.” 2021. African American Registry. November 11, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/frederick-mckinley-jones-innovator-of-many-devices/.
- Stroud, Cedric M. 2021. “Black Inventors and Innovators: Frederick McKinley Jones.” MSR News Online. February 6, 2021. https://spokesman-recorder.com/2021/02/05/black-inventors-frederick-mckinley-jones/.
- Wigington, Patti. 2019. “Frederick McKinley Jones, Inventor of Mobile Refrigeration Technology.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash Meredith. April 12, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/frederick-mckinley-jones-4587799.
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