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How has he transformed the scene?

Today, long-distance transportation of perishables is commonplace. But in the 1930s, transport of products requiring climate controlled conditions was still a risky enterprise. Options were limited: ice was itself perishable, electronic refrigeration units required layovers at power sources, and early attempts at road-worthy cooling units had been foiled by the damaging effects of vibration.

It was Minnesota-based engineer Frederick McKinley Jones who finally "broke the ice" with his invention and 1940 patent of the first practical transport refrigeration unit for trucks. His portable air-cooling device featured a gasoline motor built to handle the jolts of over-the-road travel. Early refinements focused on making the units lighter and smaller, and changing from an undercarriage mounting to the over-the-cab mounting still in use on trucks today.

"The King of Cool"

Tom Berg, (in) Heavy Duty Trucking, March 2009

Jones' technological breakthrough redefined the global marketplace, with cultural reverberations felt from the world's largest cities to its most isolated villages. Consumers and distributors could now have year-round access to products such as meat, dairy, frozen foods and fresh produce. Temperature sensitive goods such as live poultry could be safely transported. Advancements in "containerization" options soon translated the technology to boxcars, then to standardized refrigerated containers that could be moved from truck to ship to plane to rail without need for unloading and re-loading of contents. In short, the transport refrigeration industry was born.

But beyond convenience and commerce, the innovation also saved lives. In 1941, when the United States entered World War II, the Defense Department selected a portable refrigeration unit designed by Fred Jones as standard equipment for the armed forces. Jones' devices were manufactured and widely distributed to allied forces active in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific. They were dropped by parachute into forward combat areas to refrigerate food, water, drugs, and blood plasma; they cooled the cockpits of B-29 bombers and ambulance planes; they air-conditioned field hospitals to give injured soldiers relief from the sweltering heat. Then, as now, in remote areas both military and civilian, the technology has been put in service to humanity.

By all accounts, Frederick McKinley Jones was indeed the "King of Cool"—as coined by Heavy Duty Trucking editor Tom Berg. His engineering feat inspired the 1938 founding of the Thermo-Control Company (now the multi-national Thermo King), by Minneapolis entrepreneur Joseph Numero. For the next fifteen years, the company would continue to benefit from Jones' talents as Chief Engineer and Vice President of Engineering, manufacturing and commercializing products resulting from more than 40 refrigeration-related patents featuring Jones' designs. He remained a leading figure at Thermo King until the mid-1950s, when illness forced an unofficial retirement. Frederick died in 1961, at age 68.

A shining thread of ingenuity

Today, the name of Frederick McKinley Jones is rarely seen in print without a reference to Thermo King. But a shining thread of ingenuity ran throughout this man's life, with accomplishments made all the more impressive given his own beginnings and the context of the times. Jones was an African American born in Kentucky in 1893, in a country still simmering from the Civil War and all that it entailed; a country with entrenched ideas about where a black man ought and ought not go.

Racism would impact the life of Frederick Jones but did not define him. As related in the biography I've Got an Idea!, Jones was raised by his father until the age of 7, when the elder Jones left him in the care of a Catholic rectory in Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from Coventry. The four years of elementary school Fred Jones attended while there would be the only formal schooling he would have in his lifetime. On his own by age 12, got a job sweeping in an auto repair garage, where he dreamed about working on the "gas-powered buggies" of the day. Three years later the self-taught mechanic was foreman of the repair shop. As a sideline, he designed race cars for the shop's owner to be run on the local racing circuit.

Frustrated that he wasn't allowed to race the cars he'd designed, at age 17 headed south in search of alternate work. Opportunities were few for a young black man. As he traveled, Jones often found it necessary to knock on doors of homes and businesses to offer work in exchange for a meal. Now and then he found paying work: feeding coal into the firebox of a sightseeing paddleboat in St. Louis; then heading north and taking a temporary mechanics job at a Chicago Cadillac garage.

It was a job in Effington, Illinois that would lead Jones to Minnesota. Seeking work at Effington's Pacific Hotel, he agreed to repair and rebuild a failing steam boiler in exchange for meals and a room. It was quite a stretch: Jones had no relevant experience and had never seen nor used flue tools. But he accomplished the task and in the process so impressed the hotel's owner, Charles Miller, that Miller offered Jones additional work: this time, to help Miller's family with their planned move to northern Minnesota. Once there, thought Miller, Jones would likely be successful in finding more steady work in the growing farm community.

Fred Jones arrived in Hallock, Minnesota in December of 1912. It was indeed a fortuitous move, for he was soon employed as a mechanic on the 30,000-acre farm owned by Walter Hill, son of prominent "railroad builder" James J. Hill. With the help of an engineer working on the Hill farm, Jones learned what he needed to prepare for state exams for an engineering license, eventually earning the highest-grade license available to a Minnesota engineer. Aside from time away for service in World War 1 (working in France as an electrician and rising to the rank of Sergeant) the northern berg would be Jones' home for 17 years.

"Fred always believed that if he wanted something and did not have it, he could make it for himself."

"I've Got an Idea," G. Swanson & M. Ott

According to a May 7, 1948 feature article in the Saturday Evening Post, while in Hallock Jones played saxophone in the community band, built and raced cars, and distinguished himself among the locals with an amazing array of devices displaying his creative mechanical and electrical inventive genius. Books from the public library and from mail order courses gave him a foundation of knowledge to act on his ideas.

Jones built a wireless broadcasting transmitter, designed what he called a "condensor-type" microphone (years before it was patented by others), built personal radios, fashioned surgical instruments, designed and built a portable x-ray machine (also later patented by others), built a snow machine to convey doctors to patients across the frozen fields, and drew plans for a small radio using amplifiers rather than vacuum tubes—technology that would emerge some 25 years later in the form of the transistor radio.

For the local movie theater, Jones developed a process to reduce the flickering of silent movies. Then, in the 1920s, he devised inexpensive means of converting the theater's equipment to accommodate the "sound on disc" and later "sound-on-film" technology of the talkies—using a lens he cut and ground from a glass towel rod! Word quickly spread about the quality experience awaiting movie audiences at Hallock's Grand Theater. News of Jones' accomplishments, in particular, led to an interview request by businessman Joe Numero, owner of the Minneapolis-based Ultraphone Sound Systems. Despite the fact the company's receptionist reportedly told 38-year old Jones on arrival for the interview that "We don't have any jobs for a colored boy," Numero offered Jones a job. He accepted, making the move from Hallock to Minneapolis in 1930 to work as an engineer for Ultraphone.

In an oft-related story about the origins of the Thermo King Corporation, Jones was still working at Ultraphone when in 1938 a golfing buddy of Numero's complained of problems his business was experiencing with heat-related loss of perishables during transport. Numero made an off-hand remark that his friend needed a refrigerated truck. To Numero's surprise, the friend later brought a truck to Ultraphone, challenging Numero and his engineers—one of whom was Fred Jones—to create a refrigerated truck. Jones did exactly that, and in short order Numero got out of the cinema supply business and into the refrigeration business, thus setting in motion all that would follow.

Jones may be the "King of Cool." His pivotal role in development of Thermo King and the international refrigeration transport industry are well established. Yet, these are dwarfed by the life of Frederick McKinley Jones in its broad sweep. His focus, his lifelong embrace of learning, his confidence in his own ability to engineer solutions to a technical challenge, his brilliance brought to potential through hard work and personal experience; his resoluteness before adversity, his daring spirit—these are what led the boy and then the man, Frederick McKinley Jones, to accomplish all that he did.

Fred Jones went from knocking on doors offering work in exchange for a meal, to becoming one of the best known and most respected engineers in the country. In 1953, Jones received a merit award from the Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary, for "outstanding achievements which serve as an inspiration to youth." Then, as now, the story of his life can serve as an inspiration to us all.

In 1991, Fred Jones was post-humously awarded the President's National Medal of Technology. One can only wonder what took them so long.