Frederick McKinley Jones: Keeping Things Cool

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Frederick McKinley Jones with one of his inventions. Photo courtesy the Black History Channel.

Learning Black History Year Round:

Tamara Shiloh

World War II was an era that spawned numerous important inventions.

A severely wounded soldier could die of blood loss. Which meant the necessity of blood transfusions. Which meant there was also the critical need for cooling units to store and transport not only blood, but medicine and food for army hospitals, military camps, and on open battlefields. One of the most prolific African-American inventors, Frederick McKinley Jones, designed the portable units used throughout the war.

Born in Covington, Ky. in 1893 (some sources report 1892), Frederick’s mother left the family soon after he was born. Young Frederick and his father, John Jones, struggled in poverty. Because of this hardship, Frederick was placed in a Catholic rectory because there were no orphanages that would accept African-American boys. He ran away at age 11.

Frederick’s aptitude for mechanical work became clear early on, and he was working as an auto mechanic by age 14. He continued to work throughout the Midwest and South in steamship, furnace, and farm machinery repair and maintenance, all while continuing as an auto mechanic.

In 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minn., where he worked as a mechanic on a 50,000-acre 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 to join the army during World War I.

Post military, Jones returned to Hallock, where he continued to learn mechanics and electronics from personal experience rather than textbooks. There he built a transmitter for the town’s new radio station and a device to combine sound with motion pictures. This attracted the attention of Joseph Numero, who hired Jones in 1930 to improve the sound equipment made by his firm, Cinema Supplies Inc., in Minneapolis, Minn.

While there, Jones, after a conversation between Numero and a friend who owned a trucking company, would conceive the idea to create a refrigeration truck. The design was completed around 1938, and the patent for it was received on July 12, 1940. Jones then entered into a partnership with Numero forming the U.S. Thermo Control Company (later named Thermo King Corporation), which by 1949, became a $3 million business.

He later developed transportable refrigeration for trains, ships, and planes.

Jones’ career produced 61 patents, 40 of which involved refrigeration systems. The condenser microphone was one invention that Jones never patented, along with a portable X-ray machine at the request of a doctor in Hallock. Both inventions were eventually patented by someone else.

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 U.S. government, including the Department of Defense and the Bureau of Standards.

Jones succumbed to lung cancer on February 21, 1961, in Minneapolis. He was inducted posthumously into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.

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