Although Frederick McKinley Jones changed everything from race cars to the movie industry and from boats to medical treatment, he is best known for his role in founding Thermo King.
Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1893 — almost two decades before mechanical refrigerators were even available in the United States. Orphaned at age eight, he was raised by a priest in Kentucky and left school after eighth grade. He had a natural aptitude and understanding of machines and mechanical devices — something he continued to develop through reading and self-education.
When he was sixteen, Jones took a position as an apprentice auto mechanic, eventually moving to Minnesota to work on a 50,000-acre farm. He put his natural mechanical abilities and inventiveness to work for the U.S. Army in World War I, teaching himself electronics along the way. He returned to Minnesota in 1930 and, after attracting attention by building a transmitter for his town’s new radio station, he was hired to improve sound equipment made by Joseph Numero, owner of Cinema Supplies, Inc.
In July of 1940, Jones patented a refrigeration system for trucks that would allow them to transport perishable foods for longer distances. Cinema Supplies, made successful in large part due to Jones’ designs and improvements, was sold to RCA and Numero and Jones started a refrigeration company called Thermo King.
The concept of refrigerating transported goods was novel at the time. When Thermo King’s “Model A” refrigeration units were applied beyond trucks to things like boats, planes, and boxcars, it had an immediate and dramatic effect on the availability of food worldwide. Suddenly millions around the world could enjoy fresh foods any time of the year.
Fruits and vegetables were able to be shipped to troops stationed overseas in World War II. Crops that were seasonal in the South could make it to the North without spoiling. It also meant that army hospitals and battlefields could receive shipments of transfusion blood and medicines that wouldn’t have been possible years before.
Beyond the immediate benefits, Jones’ refrigeration unit had a long-lasting, global impact on agricultural. It opened the doors for international trading, creating a worldwide market for all food crops and forever changing our definition of “seasonal” foods. It also eventually led to frozen foods, supermarkets and container shipping—staples in our modern life and in our food supply chains.
Before he passed away in 1961, Jones had over 60 patents in various fields — including one for a portable x-ray machine. Forty of his patents were related to refrigeration. He was also the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and the first to receive the National Medal of Technology posthumously in 1991.
At USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), we celebrate the contributions made by African American innovators, like Fred Jones. His contributions directly impacted what we do—especially in our Agricultural Transportation division, where we see the results of his work every day. He used his passion for refrigeration and his inventiveness to increase food safety during shipment and made food more accessible worldwide.