Fred Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Covington, Kentucky. His father was a white railroad worker of Irish descent and his mother was Black. It is believed that his mother died while he was young and Fred was raised by his father. When Fred was eight years old, his father took him to Cincinnati, Ohio to where they visited St. Mary’s Catholic Church rectory. Fred’s father urged Father Edward A. Ryan to take Fred in in order to expose him to an environment where he might have a better opportunity for gaining an education. Fred performed chores around the church in return for being fed and housed, cutting the grass, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors and learning to cook. At an early age, Fred demonstrated a great interest in mechanical working, whether taking apart a toy, a watch or a kitchen appliance. Eventually he became interested in automobiles, so much so that upon turning 12 years of age, he ran away from his home at the rectory and began working at the R.C. Crothers Garage.
Initially hired to sweep and clean the garage, Fred spent much of his time observing the mechanics as they worked on cars. His observation, along with a voracious appetite for learning through reading developed within Fred an incredible base of knowledge about automobiles and their inner workings. Within three years, Fred had become the foreman of the garage. The garage was primarily designed to repair automobiles brought in by customers but also served as a studio for building racing cars. After a few years of building these cars, Fred desired to drive them and soon became one of the most well known racers in the Great Lakes region. After brief stints working aboard a steamship and a hotel, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota began designing and building racecars which he drove them at local tracks and at county fairs. His favorite car was known as Number 15 and it was so well designed it not only defeated other automobile but once triumphed in a race against an airplane.
On August 1, 1918 Jones enlisted in the 809 Pioneer Infantry of the United States Army and served in France during World War I. While serving, Jones recruited German prisoners of war and rewired his camp for electricity, telephone and telegraph service. After being discharged by the Army, Fred returned to Hallock in 1919. Looking for work, Jones often aided local doctors by driving them around for housecalls during the winter season. When navigation through the snow proved difficult, Fred attached skis to the undercarriage of an old airplane body and attached an airplane propeller to a motor and soon whisked around town a high speeds in his new snowmachine. Over the next few years Fred began tinkering with almost everything he could find, inventing things he could not find and improving upon those he could. When one of the doctors he worked for on occasion complained that he wished he did not have to wait for patient to come into his office for x-ray exams, Jones created a portable x-ray machine that could be taken to the patient. Unfortunately, like many of his early inventions, Jones never thought to apply for a patent for machine and watched helplessly as other men made fortunes off of their versions of the device. Undaunted, Jones set out for other projects, including a radio transmitter, personal radio sets and eventually motion picture devices.
In 1927, Jones was faced with the problem of helping friend convert their silent movie theater into a “talkie” theater. Not only did he convert scrap metal into the parts necessary to deliver a soundtrack to the video, he also devised ways to stabilize and improve the picture quality. When Joe Numero, the head of Ultraphone Sound Systems heard about Fred’s devices, he invited Fred to come to Minneapolis for a job interview. After taking a position with the company, Fred began improving on many of the existing devices the company sold. Many of his improvements were so significant, representatives from A.T. & T and RCA sat down to talk with Fred and were amazed at the depth of his knowledge on intricate details, particularly in light of his limited educational background. Around this time, Fred came up with a new idea – an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used at movie theaters. Fred applied for and received a patent for this device in June of 1939 and the patent rights were eventually sold to RCA.
At some point, Joe Numero was presented with the task of developing a device which would allow large trucks to transport perishable products without them spoiling. Jones set to work and developed a cooling process that could refrigerate the interior of the tractor-trailer. In 1939 Fred and Joe Numero received a patent for the vehicle air-conditioning device which would later be called a Thermo King.
This product revolutionized several industries including shipping and grocery businesses. Grocery chains were now able to import and export products which previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. Thus, the frozen food industry was created and the world saw the emergence of the “supermarket.”
In addition to installing the Thermo King refrigeration units in trucks and tractor-trailers, Jones modified the original design so they could be outfitted for trains, boats and ships.
During World War II, the Department of Defense found a great need portable refrigeration units for distributing food and blood plasma to troops in the field. The Department called upon Thermo King for a solution. Fred modified his device and soon had developed a prototype which would eventually allow airplanes to parachute these units down behind enemy lines to the waiting troops.
For the next 20 years, Fred Jones continued make improvements on existing devices and devised new inventions when necessary to aid the public. Jones died on February 21, 1961 and was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology, one of the greatest honors an inventor could receive. Jones was the first Black inventor to ever receive such an honor.
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