Frederick McKinley Jones


Frederick McKinley Jones
Cincinnati, OH, USA
Death date
Associated organizations
Thermo King
Fields of study
National Medal of Technology


Though his formal education ended in the 6th grade, Frederick M. Jones was issued more than 60 patents, over 40 of which were in his specialty, refrigeration. Born on May 17, 1892 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jones was orphaned at the age of nine and moved to Covington, Kentucky, where he was raised by a priest until the age of 16. Developing a keen interest in cars, he returned to Cincinnati where he found a job as a mechanic in an automobile shop. Though he was promoted to garage foreman in just three years, his side hobby of building racing cars soon resulted in his losing the position when he attended a racing competition without permission from his boss. He then took a job as chief mechanic on a large farm in Minnesota, before enlisting in the U.S. Army as an electrician. Jones, who achieved the rank of sergeant, served in France during World War I, one of many black men to enlist in the US Armed Forces, urged on by several key black leaders who felt that military service might improve the treatment of blacks domestically after the war. Upon returning home, Jones worked again as a garage mechanic, and spent much of his free time mastering electronics, eventually developing a self-starting gasoline motor. Later, as the 1920s drew to a close, Jones developed several devices for the burgeoning motion picture industry, including an adaptor that allowed silent movie projectors to run the new "talkie" films, and box-office ticket and change machines.

His attention soon turned to the need for better mobile refrigeration, and in 1935, Jones invented the first automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks, a system that was later used on other vehicles as well, including ships and train cars. His invention allowed food to be transported without spoiling, enabling Americans to enjoy fresh produce from nearly any region of the country all year long and greatly changing American food shopping and eating habits in the process. Jones applied his new technical expertise to developing several other important inventions, three of which were utilized by military hospitals and field stations: a mobile air-conditioning unit used to keep blood and medication at room temperature, a portable x-ray machine, and a field refrigerator for storing rations.

In 1938, Jones and his former boss, J. A. Numero, jointly founded the U.S. Thermo Control Company, later renamed the Thermo King Corporation. The business took off slowly, selling just 33 units in 1939, but due in large part to a lucrative contract with the U.S. government during World War II, by 1949 the company was earning $3,000,000 a year. Widely considered one of the foremost experts in refrigeration nationwide, Jones was elected as the first black member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers in 1944, and served as a consultant to the Defense Department and the U.S. Bureau of Standards in the 1950's. Though Frederick Jones died in Minneapolis on February 21, 1961, he continued to receive honors and awards posthumously for his role in transforming the food industry. In 1977, he was inducted into Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and on September 16, 1991, his widow, and the widow of his partner, J.A. Numero, who had died earlier in 1991, each accepted a National Medal of Technology, the highest award for technological achievement from then president George Bush.