The next time you see a delivery truck parked outside your local grocery store, take a look at the front, above the cab. Do you see the words “Thermo King” printed there? If you do, you’re looking at a truck whose refrigeration unit was built by the company that first developed refrigerated trucking way back in 1938. And the man who invented those original refrigeration units was Thermo King’s Vice President of Engineering, Frederick McKinley Jones.
The story of Fred Jones is truly a story of the American Dream. As an African-American born in Kentucky in 1893, Jones received only four years of schooling before he ended up orphaned and on his own at the age of twelve. He found a job sweeping up an auto repair shop. While he swept, he paid close attention to the work being done, and by age fifteen, he’d learned enough to become foreman of the shop. Over the next few years, he worked at a series of jobs and studied hard, using mail-order courses and books from the library. By age twenty, he was living in Hallock, Minnesota, where he earned the highest grade engineering license in the state despite being completely self-taught.
Fred Jones continued working and learning, designing and building. Among other things, he built a wireless radio transmitter for the town’s radio station, a portable x-ray machine for a local doctor, and race cars that he raced himself. He enlisted during World War I and served as an Army electrician, putting up telegraph systems. When the local movie theater switched from silent films to “talkies,” Jones’s work on the changeover attracted the attention of Joe Numero, who engineered movie sound systems. Numero hired Jones, and together they founded Thermo Control.
At Thermo Control, soon renamed Thermo King, Fred Jones took on the challenge of designing a refrigeration unit that could withstand long hours of road vibration. In 1938, he produced the Model A, which attached to the underside of the truck with refrigeration tubes running through the trailer. It worked, but it was heavy and tended to pick up a lot of dirt from the road. Unsatisfied, Jones continued improving the design, and in 1941 he produced the Model C.
The Model C was a lighter-weight, self-contained unit that went on the front of the truck, over the cab, where it picked up much less dirt. And it was a huge success. During World War II, the US military used the Model C to deliver fresh food, medications, and blood plasma to soldiers in the field. After the war, it revolutionized the agricultural industry, making fresh and frozen food available all over the country, all year long. As a result, the modern supermarket was born. Today, three-quarters of all food in the US is shipped using refrigeration.
Over the course of his life, Fred Jones received more than twenty patents, including ones for developments in refrigeration, air conditioning, and thermostats. Jones became the first African American member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers in 1944. After his death in 1961, he was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame, and in 1991, President George H. W. Bush posthumously awarded him the President’s National Medal of Technology.
So the next time you’re at the grocery store, take a moment to think of Frederick McKinley Jones, an orphan from Kentucky who became one of America’s great inventors, because without him, there’d be a lot less food on those shelves!