When one thinks of air conditioning, it usually brings to mind adjusting the temperature within a home or office. However, air conditioning is also indispensable for transporting some of this nation’s most valuable commodities. In this installment of Appliances Connection’s Black History Month series, we’ll examine the life of Frederick McKinley Jones, inventor extraordinaire a pioneer of mobile air conditioning.
Frederick McKinley Jones: Inauspicious Beginnings
Frederick McKinley Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1893 to a white father and a black mother. Accounts regarding his parents’ fates are conflicting. Suffice it to say, Jones was ostensibly an orphan at age 7 and was raised by a priest one state over in Kentucky.
Frederick McKinley Jones: The Mechanic and the Racer
Unhappy with his circumstances for a number of years, he ran away at the age of 11 and returned to Cincinnati working odd jobs. While working as a janitor in a garage servicing the nascent automobile. Intently observing the mechanics and later helping out, he found he had an aptitude for working on cars. By 19, he’d built and driven several cars in local exhibitions and soon became one of the most prominent racers in the Great Lakes region.
Frederick McKinley Jones: The Army and the Move to Minnesota
During World War I, Jones joined the army and rose through the ranks to become a sergeant and served in France as an electrician. While there, ever the consummate tinkerer, he wired his entire camp for electricity, telephony, and telegraphy. When he was discharged, he moved to Hallock, Minnesota where he educated himself in electronics. Using his burgeoning skills and knowledge, he built a transmitter for the town’s radio station.
Frederick McKinley Jones: Stolen Ingenuity
The 1930s were a prolific time for Frederick McKinley Jones. Along with continuing his developments in radio including improving transmitters and personal radio sets, he created a portable x-ray machine doctors could take to housebound patients and advancing motion picture technology. Regrettably, it never crossed Jones’s mind to apply for patents and he had to watch as other men made fortunes misappropriating his ideas. Luckily, serendipity was about to be on his side.
Frederick McKinley Jones: US Thermo Control Company
Joseph Numero had previously been a benefactor for Jones’s creative pursuits. In the late 1930s or early 1940s, they partnered to found the US Thermo Control Company with Jones as vice president. With Jones’s ingenuity and Numero’s business savvy, they created and sold portable air conditioning/refrigeration system that could be installed in truck strains, boats, and ships. During World War II, it was used to cool military field hospitals and transport vital blood serum for transfusion in said field hospitals.
Frederick McKinley Jones: Changing the Way We Eat
During peacetime, the air-conditioned transport technology revolutionized worldwide food culture by birthing the frozen food industry. Previously, groceries were only able to ship canned goods whose quality is, to say the least, subpar. Jones’s new innovation allowed fresh food to be frozen and imported and exported the world over. Now, the company’s name is Thermo King and they are a multi-billion, multi-national corporation.
Frederick McKinley Jones succumbed to lung cancer in 1961. He had more than 60 patents under his belt, most related to air conditioning and refrigeration. Jones found accolades both in life and in death. In 1944, he was the first African-American to be inducted into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and, in 1991, President George HW Bush posthumously awarded him the National Medal of Technology.