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Leaders in Innovation

How Frederick Jones Improved America’s Diet

Credited with developing essential mobile refrigeration equipment used to transport food and lifesaving blood during World War II, National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Frederick McKinley Jones helped transform Americans’ eating habits by providing access to fresh produce year-round.

Read below to learn more about Jones’ incredible career and the story of how he developed his revolutionary refrigeration technology.


Early Life

Born on May 17, 1893, in Cincinnati, from an early age Jones faced great hardship. At the age of 9, he became an orphan after his mother unexpectedly passed away. He was sent to live at St. Ann Catholic church in Covington, Kentucky, where a priest named Rev. Edward A. Ryan both took care of him and inspired his interest in mechanics. While living at the church rectory, he was tasked with cleaning, cooking, grounds work and general maintenance tasks.

At just 11, he ran away from the church (finding the daily tasks too repetitious and boring) and found work at an auto garage in Cincinnati. It was here that his passion for mechanics blossomed, and he soon went from sweeping the floors to working as a full-time mechanic at age 14. Just one year later he began to supervise the garage as the mechanic foreman.

Jones’ independent spirit would get the best of him, and at age 19 he was let go for sneaking off to the racetrack during work hours. For the next 20 years, he picked up odd jobs around the Midwest and Southern United States. During this time, he found work repairing steamships, furnaces, farm machinery and automobiles.


World War I

Jones enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I and was in great demand thanks to his ability to fix just about anything. From maintaining communications systems at the front lines, to fixing military vehicles, X-ray machines and electrical wiring, he quickly proved himself as a valuable asset to the military. In just a few short months, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Throughout the war, Jones also taught classes to his fellow soldiers on the subject of electrical circuitry.

After the war, he took a job in Hallock, Minnesota, where he worked as the town’s movie projectionist, developed novel movie sound technology and built a radio transmitter for the town.


Entrepreneurship and Ingenuity

Jones’ ingenuity caught the attention of a local entrepreneur named Joseph Numero, who hired him to improve the quality of the sound equipment that his company, Cinema Supplies, produced. This connection eventually led to the creation of Jones’ most impactful invention.

One day, Numero’s business peer, Harry Werner, complained to him that he was unable to ship food without it spoiling. In response, Numero joked that he should have a refrigerator inside his truck. In response, Werner purchased an aluminum truck and asked Numero and Jones if they might be able to make that possible. While Numero believed this would be impossible, Jones got to work, and after some trial and error, he created a shock-resistant refrigeration unit that could mount underneath the truck.

“I expected to give it a quick once over and tell Werner it couldn't be done,” Numero recalled. “But Jones beat me to it. He climbed into the trailer, made some measurements and calculations, and popped his head out to announce he guessed he could fix up something. And we were stuck with it."

On July 12, 1940, Jones earned a patent for his creation. He and Numero then started their own company, Thermo King Corp., which provided refrigerated trucks for transporting food to soldiers during World War II.

However, it was after the war that his invention had lasting impact. Following the construction of the U.S. interstate system, Thermo King’s technology was responsible for transporting food across the country and was used in trucks, railroad cars, ships and planes. For the first time, dairy and meat products could be transported safely across hundreds of miles through the use of mechanical refrigeration. This unprecedented access to fresh food and produce drastically improved people’s eating habits across the country.

Over the course of his career, Jones earned more than 60 patents. He passed away on Feb. 21, 1961, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology posthumously in 1991 – the first Black American to win the award.


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