The Legacy of a Black Inventor, Frederick McKinley Jones, in the Refrigeration and Cinema Industries



Anytime you see a truck on the highway transporting refrigerated or frozen food, you are seeing the work of Frederick McKinley Jones. One of the most prolific Black inventors ever, Jones patented more than 60 inventions in his lifetime. While more than 40 of those patents were in the field of refrigeration, Jones is most famous for inventing an automatic refrigeration system for long haul trucks and railroad cars.

Jones was born in Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio, on 17th May, 1893. He served in France during the World War I. After h returning home, he worked as a garage mechanic, and with this experience, he developed a self-starting gasoline motor. His mastery of electronic devices was largely self-taught, through work experience and the inventing process. After brief stints working aboard a steamship and a hotel, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota, and began designing and building race cars, which he drove at local tracks and at county fairs. His favorite car was known as Number 15 and it was so well designed. It not only defeated other automobile but also triumphed in a race against an airplane. He soon took a job as a mechanic on railroad magnate James J. Hill’s famous farm in Kittson County.

In the late 1920s, Jones designed a series of devices for the developing movie/cinema industry, which adapted silent movie projectors to use talking movie stock. He also developed an apparatus for the movie box-office that delivers tickets and returns change to customers. He invented a snowmobile. Frederick Jones was granted more than 40 patents in the field of refrigeration. In 1935, he invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and railroad cars (a roof-mounted cooling device). This system eliminated the risk of food spoilage during long-distance shipping trips and was later adapted to a variety of other common carriers, including ships and railway cars.

Jones’s pioneering designs for mobile refrigeration units led to the formation of the Thermo-King Corporation (Minneapolis) in 1935 and revolutionized the field of transport refrigeration for trucks, railcars, and ships. His invention radically altered American consumer’s eating habits; as people could now eat fresh products across the United States during the middle of summer or winter. Frederick Jones also developed an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. Jones was one of the most prolific African-American inventors ever.

The Thermo-King transformed the shipping and grocery businesses. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products that previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. As a result, the frozen food industry was born and for the first time, consumers could enjoy fresh foods from around the globe and U.S. During World War II, the need for a unit for storing blood serum for transfusions and medicines led Jones into further refrigeration research. For this, he created an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens. As a result, many lives were saved. A modified form of his device is still in use to date. In 1944, Frederick Jones became the first African-American to be elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. During the 1950s, he was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Bureau of Standards. By the time of his death on 21st February, 1961, Jones had more than sixty patents. In honor of his tremendous achievements as an inventor, he was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology. Jones was the first black inventor to ever receive such an honor.

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