The Black Inventor of Portable Refrigeration

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In 1938, Frederick McKinley Jones, a largely self-taught, Black inventor, built the first portable refrigeration unit for truck trailers, revolutionizing food distribution worldwide.

Photo used with permission from the Minnesota Historical Society
Frederick Jones originally attached his portable refrigeration units under truck trailers, later moving them to trailer noses where they’re still mounted today

Domestically, refrigerated trailers opened new markets for farmers located thousands of miles from consumers. It sparked the creation of supermarkets, changed eating habits, enabled the preservation of medicine and other perishables, spawned the frozen food industry and allowed fresh food to replace canned goods. Suddenly you could eat pineapples on the east coast in the winter.

Similar transformations occurred worldwide when refrigeration was later adapted to railcars, planes and ships.

Challenging childhood

Born in 1893 and orphaned at 9, Jones lived with a Catholic priest in Cincinnati, showing an early, natural mechanical aptitude. He enjoyed taking apart watches and kitchen appliances. The priest encouraged his interests, but at age 11, Jones left school and ran away to become a janitor at an automobile garage. He became a voracious reader of books, manuals and anything mechanical, and watched the working mechanics intently.

Soon he was repairing cars and at age 15 was named foreman. As a sideline, he built race cars for the garage owner, but wasn’t allowed to drive them. Frustrated, he traveled to the South at age 17 where he experienced racism and struggled to find work.

Midwest Move

At age 19, he moved to Hallock, Minnesota to become the master mechanic of a 50,000-acre farm where he furthered his studies in electronics and earned an engineering license.

He would warmly remember Hallock as a place where a “man was judged more for his character and ability than on the color of his skin.”

Jones served in World War I where he ran electrical, telegraph and telephone lines. He repaired x-ray machines and military vehicles.

Inventions Abound

After the war, Jones’ inventiveness blossomed. He devised a condenser microphone, surgical instruments and an early snowmobile fashioned from an old airplane fuselage, skis, car engine and rear airplane propeller. He used it to ferry doctors on their winter calls.

Unfortunately, Jones didn’t patent many of his early inventions, so others took credit.

After building a device that successfully married sound to moving pictures less expensively than the movie industry, Jones came to the attention of Joseph Numero who owned Cinema Supplies in Minneapolis. Numero hired the 37-year-old Jones as an electrical engineer in 1930.

Dawn of Portable Refrigeration

In 1938, Numero and a trucking executive were playing golf when the executive complained about the loss of a poultry shipment due to hot weather. He needed someone to perfect a refrigerated truck. Numero accepted the challenge and brought the task to Jones.

Within weeks, Jones came up with a working model. It was so successful that Numero formed the Thermo Control Company – later Thermo King – naming Jones chief engineer.

Before dying in 1961, Jones had earned 61 patents, 40 in refrigeration and 21 for inventions as diverse as portable x-ray machines, movie ticket dispensers – used until the 1990s, gasoline engines, window air conditioners and ice cream makers.

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