Frederick McKinley Jones (May 17, 1893 – February 21, 1961) was an American inventor, entrepreneur, engineer, winner of the National Medal of Technology, and an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[1] Jones innovated mobile refrigeration technology. He received 61 patents, 40 for refrigeration technology.[2] He co-founded Thermo King and also served as a Sergeant in World War I.


Frederick McKinley Jones (May 17, 1893 – February 21, 1961) was an American inventor, entrepreneur, engineer, winner of the National Medal of Technology, and an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[1] Jones innovated mobile refrigeration technology. Jones received 61 patents, including 40 for refrigeration technology,[2] and also revolutionized the cinema industry by creating a superior sound system for projectors at the time.[3] Jones co-founded Thermo King and also served as a sergeant in World War I.[1][4] Due to his contributions to refrigeration technology, he is called the "Father of Refrigerated Transportation",[3] and the "King of Cool".[5][6]

Frederick McKinley Jones
Born(1893-05-17)May 17, 1893
DiedFebruary 21, 1961(1961-02-21) (aged 67)

Early life

Jones was born in Covington, Kentucky, on May 17, 1893, to an Irish father and African-American mother.[7][8] Little is known about his mother who left his life when he was a child.[9] His father, John Jones, was a railroad worker who struggled to raise him on his own.[9][10] Jones was raised by a Catholic priest, Father Ryan, at a rectory in Cincinnati, Ohio, near Covington.[11][12] Father Ryan took in Jones by age eight, and two years later John Jones died.[2][7][13] Jones left school after 6th grade, at age 11.[12] He went to nearby Cincinnati, Ohio. There he worked odd jobs including a role as a garage cleaning boy. By age 14 Jones was working as an automobile mechanic and was later named garage foreman.[2][9] Jones was largely self taught.[14]


Mechanical engineer

In 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota, where he worked as a mechanic on a 50,000-acre (200 km2) farm.[10] The farm was owned by James J. Hill, who was also owner of the Great Northern Railroad. Jones' proximity to Hill and the railroad facilitated his education in electricity and steam locomotive engines.[9] He lived there for over 20 years and would later say in a newspaper article that Hallock was a place "where a man … [was] judged more on his character and ability than on the color of his skin."[7] He was locally known as "Casey" due to a remark by a railroad engineer he met while working at Hill Farm (see also Casey Jones).[11] Jones received his engineering license at age 20.[15] He later upgraded his license to the highest grade.[9]

Army service

In the U.S. Army, Jones took part in World War I in an all-black unit until his mechanical skills were spotted and he was promoted to sergeant working as an electrician and even teaching other soldiers.[7] Jones performed the wiring necessary to equip his camp with electricity, telegraph, and telephone services.[16]

Audiovisual work

After military service with in World War I, Jones returned to Hallock. He worked as a mechanic while learning about electronics. He built a transmitter for the town's first radio station.[17] He also invented a device to combine sound with motion pictures.[18] This attracted the attention of local entrepreneur Joseph A. Numero of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Numero owned a company that manufactured audio equipment called Ultraphone Sound Systems Inc. and was later renamed to Cinema Supplies Inc.[18] He hired Jones in 1927 as an electrical engineer to improve the audio equipment made by his firm.[7] Jones worked on converting silent movie projectors into audiovisual projectors.[2] Jones also patented a ticket dispensing machine for movie theaters.[18]


Around 1938, following a request by Numero, Jones began designing the Thermo Control Model A automatic truck refrigeration unit.[18] Jones designed the portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food to prevent spoilage.[11][14] The Model A refrigeration equipment was attached to undercarriages of trucks. Chilled air was transported to the inside of the trailer via refrigerant tubing.[17] Because Model A was too heavy, Jones later developed the Model B. The Model B was smaller and lighter, but not durable. In 1941, Jones completed development of the Model C, which was mounted to the front of the truck. It was compact, light, and withstood road travel vibrations.[17][19] In 1939, Jones filed for a patent for the Model A and received a patent for it on July 12, 1949.[17][20] Numero sold his movie sound equipment business to RCA and formed a new company in partnership with Jones, the U.S. Thermo Control Company (later the Thermo King Corporation) which became a $3 million business by 1949.[17][18] Portable cooling units designed by Jones were especially important during World War II, preserving blood, medicine, and food for use at army hospitals and on open battlefields. Model C units were manufactured for military use, following the war the units became available for commercial use.[17]

Other inventions

He also developed a portable x-ray machine.[7][14][18] He also developed an early prototype of a snowmobile. It was a "snow machine" that attached skis to the undercarriage of an airplane fuselage and attached a propeller, and a sound track synchroniser (later selling the patent to RCA).[7][18] A movie-ticket dispenser, and an early radio service for local doctors were also counted among his inventions.[7]

Distinctions and honors

During his life, Jones was awarded 61 patents.[14][7] Forty were for refrigeration equipment, while others were for devices for theater equipment and devices pertaining to gasoline engines.[2][12][21]

  • In 1944, Jones became the first African-American to become a member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.[7]
  • 1953 Merit Award, Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary, "for outstanding achievements which serve as an inspiration to youth."[22]
  • In 1977, he was posthumously inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.[11]
  • In 1991, the National Medal of Technology was awarded to Joseph A. Numero and Frederick M. Jones. President George Bush presented the awards posthumously to their widows at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Jones was the first African American to receive the award.[11]
  • In 1996, the Thermo King Model 'C' refrigeration unit, the world's first front-mount refrigeration unit for mobile trucks, was designated an International Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Jones designed and built the prototype from junkyard salvage. The challenges were to build a structural frame and refrigerant tubing connections that would withstand the constant pounding of road vibrations.[23]
  • In 2007, Jones was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, which honored him as a "Visionary Veteran."[24]
  • In the March 2009 issue of Heavy Duty Truck magazine, editor Tom Berg dubbed Jones "The King of Cool", and wrote that his "technological breakthrough redefined the global marketplace, with cultural reverberations felt from the world's largest cities to its most isolated villages."[11]
  • In 2015, Jones' achievements were recognized by the creators of a Black heritage-themed playground located in Minneapolis. The playground features train-themed equipment with an educational plaque explaining Jones' mobile refrigeration technology.[7]
  • In 2022, several Black-owned breweries honored Jones during Black History Month. They released commemorative beers featuring the likeness of notable figures in Black history, including Jones.[25]


He died of lung cancer at the age of 67 in Minneapolis in 1961, predeceasing his wife Lucille.[11][7] In an obituary in the Saturday Evening Post it was said "Most engineers start at the bottom of a project and work up, but Fred takes a flying leap to the top of the mountain and then backs down, cutting steps for himself and the rest of us as he goes."[7] Jones continued filing for patents almost up until his death, receiving his last patent in February 1960.[26]



  1. ^ a b "Frederick McKinley Jones". Hall of Fame inventor profile. National Inventors Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on February 22, 2014. Retrieved February 22, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e "'The View' celebrates Black History Month by highlighting those who changed history". ABC News. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  3. ^ a b "Black History in the Cold Chain: Frederick McKinley Jones". February 1, 2023. Retrieved May 4, 2024.
  4. ^ "The King of Cool". Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  5. ^ "Frederick McKinley Jones". Retrieved May 4, 2024.
  6. ^ O’Neal, Denise I. (February 17, 2020). "How an unsung black inventor saved lives as 'The King of Cool'". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved May 4, 2024.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "From tiny Hallock to huge inventions". Minneapolis Star Tribune. February 21, 2016. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  8. ^ "Frederick McKinley Jones". Black History Pages. Archived from the original on February 8, 2011. Retrieved February 22, 2011.
  9. ^ a b c d e Stroud, Cedric M. (February 5, 2021). "Black Inventors and Innovators: Frederick McKinley Jones". Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  10. ^ a b "Frederick Jones". Biography. June 23, 2020. Retrieved June 29, 2020.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g "Frederick McKinley Jones". Minnesota Science and Technology Hall of Fame. Minnesota High Tech Association / Science Museum of Minnesota. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  12. ^ a b c Cook, Gina (February 5, 2019). "Frederick M. Jones Regrigeration Inventor And CoFounder Of Thermo". 107 JAMZ. Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  13. ^ "Gerald Wilson: Black History Month profile". Retrieved March 10, 2022.
  14. ^ a b c d "Frederick McKinley Jones : Library: MNHS.ORG". Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  15. ^ "These Black Inventors Changed the World and Everyday Lives". Inside Edition. February 10, 2021. Retrieved March 14, 2022.
  16. ^ "Frederick McKinley Jones: Refrigeration engineer". Institute for Transportation. May 21, 2018. Retrieved March 14, 2022.
  17. ^ a b c d e f "Minnesota knows cold: Frederick McKinley Jones patented the world's first successful refrigerated transportation system". MinnPost. August 11, 2015. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g "If you enjoy fresh food, thank Frederick McKinley Jones (and a $6 bet)". Hagerty Media. February 24, 2022. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
  19. ^ "Vaccines and the appliance of science". Financial Times. December 4, 2020. Archived from the original on December 11, 2022. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
  20. ^ Smith, Jessie Carney (2012). Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press. p. 613. ISBN 978-1-57859-424-5.
  21. ^ US2163754A, "Ticket dispensing machine", issued 1939-06-27 
  22. ^ "African American Leaders in Tech: Part 4". Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  23. ^ "#192 Thermo King© CRefrigeration Unit". ASME. Retrieved February 23, 2022.
  24. ^ "Our Rich History: Regional inventors — legendary toys, everyday health, home and more | NKyTribune". January 2018. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
  25. ^ "Black-owned breweries release education beers for Black History Month". Global Circulate. February 10, 2022. Retrieved March 17, 2022.
  26. ^ US2926005A, Jones, Frederick M., "Thermostat and temperature control system", issued 1960-02-23 

Further reading

External links

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