Home History Meet the self-taught Black American inventor who pioneered modern refrigeration

Meet the self-taught Black American inventor who pioneered modern refrigeration



It is an unfortunate fact of life that not all persons who live a life that is worthy of emulation and immortalization become household names. The passage of time plays a large role in the continuance of the anonymity. In the case of records of Black geniuses and heroes, more sinister machinations other than time plays the biggest role in the obfuscation of the People about these important Black personalities, to maintain the bitter white lie that Black is an inferior race. The advent of the internet should result in this condition being improved. In this regard one person shall be considered here in this article. That person, Frederick McKinley Jones, deserves to be better known.


Frederick McKinley Jones is the reason why perishable goods can be transported from place to place because he invented the portable refrigeration technology that makes it possible. If you are thankful for the ice cream truck you patronize in the park on a hot afternoon, you direct your gratitude to Jones. The world-renowned African-American inventor, entrepreneur, winner of the National Medal of Technology, and an inductee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame was awarded 61 patents during his life.

Frederick McKinley Jones, Black Inventor and Entrepreneur

Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on May 17, 1893.  At the age of seven his father, unable to cater for him, sent him to live with a priest in a Catholic rectory, so he could be educated. The priest noticed the young Jones had an uncanny ability in electronics and mechanics and encouraged him to perfect this skill. Jones attended school and earned his keep by working around the church doing various jobs until his father died. At age 11 (6th grade) he quit school and moved to Hallock, Minnesota in 1912 where he got his first job working as an automobile mechanic on a 50,000 acre farm at age 14.



At the outbreak of World War 1, the self-taught mechanic left Hallock to serve in the Army. Portable cooling units designed by Jones were used at army hospitals and on open battlefields to store blood, medicine, and food.


When he returned in 1930 he began to master working with electronics. He got so good he built a transmitter for Hallock’s new radio station and picked up another patent for inventing a device that combined sound with motion pictures. This attracted the attention of Joseph A. Numero of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who hired Jones in 1930 to improve the sound equipment made by his firm, Cinema Supplies Inc.


Around 1938, Jones designed a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food, and received a patent for it on July 12, 1940. Amazingly forty of the 61 patents awarded by Jones, were for refrigeration equipment, while others went for portable X-ray machines, sound equipment, and gasoline engines.


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). By 1949, refrigeration innovations by Frederick M. Jones became a $3 million business! Transporting perishable goods by way of long-haul trucking exploded and expanded to delivering refrigerated cargo by other means of transportation such as rail, air, and sea.


Below are some of the amazing inventions by the incredible, self-taught African American engineer:

June 27, 1939 – Ticket dispensing machine.

April 28, 1942 – Design for air conditioning unit.

December 14, 1943 – Removable cooling units for compartments.

December 21, 1943 – Means for automatically stopping and starting gas engines.

May 29, 1945 – Two-cycle gas engine.

March 11, 1947 – Two-cycle gas engine.

July 12, 1949 – Automatic refrigeration system for long-haul trucks.

July 12, 1949 – Starter generator.

July 12, 1949 – Means operated by a starter generator for cooling a gas engine.

July 26, 1949 – Means for thermostatically operating gas engines.

April 18, 1950 – Rotary compressor.

May 23, 1950 – System for controlling operation of refrigeration units.

July 4, 1950 – Design for air conditioning unit.

September 26, 1950 – Engine actuated ventilating system.

October 24, 1950 – Apparatus for heating or cooling atmosphere within an enclosure.

December 26, 1950 – Prefabricated refrigerator construction.

January 8, 1952 – Refrigeration control device.

January 19, 1954 – Methods and means of defrosting a cold diffuser.

December 7, 1954 – Method and means for air conditioning.

February 12, 1957 – Method and means for preserving perishable foodstuffs in transit.

September 2, 1958 – Control device for internal combustion engine.

February 23, 1960 – Thermostat and temperature control system.


In 1944 Jones became the first African American elected into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. He served as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense and the Bureau of Standards in the 50’s.

In 1953 Jones received the Merit Award, Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary, “for outstanding achievements which serve as an inspiration to youth.” Jones died at age 67 in Minneapolis in 1961 of Lung Cancer. In 1977 he was posthumously inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame. In 1991, both Jones and Numero were awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George Bush. Their widows received the awards at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. Jones was the first African American to receive this award.

The story of Frederick Mckinley Jones is one among many which stands as irrefutable proof that Black people can be anything they want to be, definitely NOT inferior, and it goes to prove that Black people contributed immensely to most of the beneficial innovations which make living in this age and time modern and easier.