Black History is American History – February 10

February 10, 2018 ~ Carolyn Matthews

Frederick McKinley Jones (1893-1961)

There are a host of things we take for granted or don’t even think about, things that make our lives more convenient and safer, that were invented by African Americans. Today I repeat another story for a couple of reasons. One, his life points to the importance of literacy; most of what he achieved came through observation and his ability to read. Two, one of his inventions made it possible for food to be safely transported across the nation and around the world. So, next time you have a grocery delivery that includes perishables, remember that Frederick McKinley Jones helped make that possible.

Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Covington, Kentucky. His father was a white railroad worker of Irish descent and his mother was Black. It is believed that his mother died while he was young and Fred was raised by his father. When Fred was eight years old, his father took him to Cincinnati, Ohio where they visited a. Catholic Church rectory. Fred’s father urged the priest there to take Fred in in order to expose him to an environment where he might have a better opportunity for gaining an education. Fred performed chores around the church in return for being fed and housed. At an early age, Fred demonstrated a great interest in mechanics, whether taking apart a toy, a watch or a kitchen appliance. Eventually he became interested in automobiles, so much so that upon turning 12 years of age, he ran away from his home at the rectory and began working at a garage.

Initially hired to sweep and clean the garage, Fred spent much of his time observing the mechanics as they worked on cars. His observations, along with a voracious appetite for learning through reading developed within Fred an incredible base of knowledge about automobiles and their inner workings. Within three years, he had become the foreman of the garage. The garage was primarily designed to repair automobiles brought in by customers but also served as a studio for building racing cars. After a few years of building these cars, Fred desired to drive them and soon became one of the most well-known racers in the Great Lakes region. He then moved to Hallock, Minnesota and began designing and building racecars 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 automobiles but once triumphed in a race against an airplane.

In 1918 Jones enlisted in the United States Army and served in France during World War I. While in the army, Jones recruited German prisoners of war and rewired his camp for electricity, telephone, and telegraph service. After being discharged by the Army, Fred returned to Hallock. Looking for work, Jones often aided local doctors by driving them around for house calls during the winter season. When navigation through the snow proved difficult, Fred attached skis to the undercarriage of an old airplane body and attached an airplane propeller to a motor and soon whisked around town at high speeds in his new snow machine. Over the next few years Fred began tinkering with almost everything he could find, inventing things he could not find and improving upon those he could. When one of the doctors he occasionally worked for complained that he wished he did not have to wait for patients to come into his office for x-ray exams, Jones created a portable x-ray machine that could be taken to the patient. Unfortunately, like many of his early inventions, Jones never thought to apply for a patent and watched helplessly as other men made fortunes off of their versions of the device. Undaunted, Jones produced other projects, including a radio transmitter, personal radio sets, and eventually motion picture devices.

In 1927, Jones was faced with the problem of helping a friend convert a silent movie theater into a “talkie” theater. Not only did he convert scrap metal into the parts necessary to deliver a soundtrack to the video, he also devised ways to stabilize and improve the picture quality. When Joseph Numero, the head of Ultraphone Sound Systems heard about Fred’s devices, he invited Fred to come to Minneapolis for a job interview. After taking a position with the company, Fred made improvements on many of the existing devices the company sold. So significant was his work, representatives from A.T. & T and RCA sat down to talk with Fred and were amazed at the depth of his knowledge on intricate details, particularly in light of his limited educational background. Around this time, Fred came up with a new idea – an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. Fred applied for and received a patent for this device in June of 1939 and the patent rights were eventually sold to RCA.

Jones continued to expand his interests in the 1930s. He designed and patented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food. His invention became indispensable during World War II, helping preserve blood, medicine and food at army hospitals or battlefields. Along with Joseph Numero, he co-founded Thermo King, the popular portable transport temperature control system company. By 1949, U.S. Thermo Control was worth millions of dollars.

Jones was one of the most prolific Black inventors ever, receiving patents for more than sixty inventions, however, he is best known for inventing the automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks and was the first person to invent a practical, mechanical refrigeration system for trucks and railroad cars, which eliminated the risk of food spoilage during long-distance shipping trips. The system was, in turn, adapted to a variety of other common carriers, including ships. Frederick Jones was issued the patent on July 12, 1940 (#2,303,857). Frederick Jones also invented a self-starting gas engine.

Jones was recognized for his achievements both during his lifetime and after his death. In 1944, he became the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously to Numero and Jones, presenting the awards to their widows at a ceremony held in the White House Rose Garden. Jones was the first African American to receive the award. He was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977.

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