Without Frederick McKinley Jones, Where Would Your Food Be?

This is the twenty-fifth entry in the series Honoring Black History.

You may not think a lot about where your food comes from, but if you shop at a grocer, chances are you food arrives by truck. And if that food is perishable—fruits, veggies, milk—it likely arrived at your grocer on a refrigerated truck. That truck, and so much more, was made possible by Frederick McKinley Jones.

It’s hard to find a ton of detail about Frederick McKinley Jones, but he was born in 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was pretty much an orphan, living in a Catholic rectory, until he quit school at age 11 to work as a cleaning boy. By 14, he was an auto mechanic. He was an avid reader and combined that with his natural mechanical ability to great success.

After returning from service in World War I, and while working full-time as a mechanic, Jones taught himself electronics and built a transmitter for Hallock, Minnesota’s radio station. He also invented a device that would sync audio with motion pictures, which led to him getting a job with Cinema Supplies, Inc. in 1930.

Around 1938, Jones designed a portable air cooling system for trucks. He received a patent on it in 1940. His boss at Cinema Supplies, Joseph A. Numero, sold his business to RCA and joined Jones in forming the U.S. Thermo Control Company, which we now know as Thermo King. By 1949, it was already a $3 million business. Jones’ invention revolutionized food delivery, but it also made it possible to transport life-saving medicine and blood to army hospitals during World War II.

By the time he died, Frederick McKinley Jones has been awarded over 60 patents, which is astounding. Moreover, they aren’t all focused on refrigeration. He designed ticket dispensers, gasoline engines, and even X-ray machines! That’s quite a resume for a black man in America who was born less than 30 years after the Civil War and died four years before the Voting Rights Act was passed. Amazing!


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