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How One Man's Invention Changed Food Access World-Wide

Posted by Arthur Neal, Deputy Administrator, AMS Transportation and Marketing in Technology
Feb 21, 2017
Fred Jones, a prolific inventor, revolutionized the transportation of food and changed the way we eat.
Fred Jones, a prolific inventor, revolutionized the transportation of food and changed the way we eat.

Although Frederick McKinley Jones changed everything from race cars to the movie industry and from boats to medical treatment, he is best known for his role in founding Thermo King.

Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1893—almost two decades before mechanical refrigerators were even available in the United States.  Orphaned at age eight, he was raised by a priest in Kentucky and left school after 8th grade.   He had a natural aptitude and understanding of machines and mechanical devices—something he continued to develop through reading and self-education.

When he was sixteen, Jones took a position as an apprentice auto mechanic, eventually moving to Minnesota to work on a 50,000-acre farm.   He put his natural mechanical abilities and inventiveness to work for the U.S. Army in World War I, teaching himself electronics along the way.   He returned to Minnesota in 1930 and, after attracting attention by building a transmitter for his town’s new radio station, he was hired to improve sound equipment made by Joseph Numero, owner of Cinema Supplies, Inc.

In July of 1940, Jones patented a refrigeration system for trucks that would allow them to transport perishable foods for longer distances.  Cinema Supplies, made successful in large part due to Jones’ designs and improvements, was sold to RCA and Numero and Jones started a refrigeration company called Thermo King.

The concept of refrigerating transported goods was novel at the time.  When Thermo King’s “Model A” refrigeration units were applied beyond trucks to things like boats, planes, and boxcars, it had an immediate and dramatic effect on the availability of food world-wide.  Suddenly millions around the world could enjoy fresh foods any time of the year.

Fruits and vegetables were able to be shipped to troops stationed overseas in World War II.  Crops that were seasonal in the South could make it to the North without spoiling.  It also meant that army hospitals and battlefields could receive shipments of transfusion blood and medicines that wouldn’t have been possible years before.

Beyond the immediate benefits, Jones’ refrigeration unit had a long-lasting, global impact on agricultural.  It opened the doors for international trading, creating a world-wide market for all food crops and forever changing our definition of “seasonal” foods.  It also eventually led to frozen foods, supermarkets and container shipping—staples in our modern life and in our food supply chains.

Before he passed away in 1961, Jones had over 60 patents in various fields—including one for a portable x-ray machine.  Forty of his patents were related to refrigeration.  He was also the first African American elected to the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers and the first to receive the National Medal of Technology posthumously in 1991.

At USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), we celebrate the contributions made by African American innovators, like Fred Jones. His contributions directly impacted what we do—especially in our Agricultural Transportation division, where we see the results of his work every day.   He used his passion for refrigeration and his inventiveness to increase food safety during shipment and made food more accessible world-wide.

Category/Topic: Technology

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Tavis Brown
Feb 22, 2012

WOW!!! This article is awesome. Today, we are currently using mobile refrigeration units that was designed by a genius.

Feb 22, 2012

I never new refrigeration was implemented that early, to be blessed with so much talent is incretable, Thanks Mr. Jones, it truly would have been an honor to have known you.

Feb 22, 2012

And still around! Excellent.

Feb 23, 2012

I have read that many things we take for granted today were invented by black Americans. I wish someone would compile a list and post it here!

Sean Glenn
Feb 23, 2012

Cool story...great to see that type of natural ability & genius didnt go to waste. Also good that he got recognition, suprising for that time period.

Feb 23, 2012

I loved the article. It makes me think, how we (Americans) take so many things for granted. Now I can pass this information on to my kids, grandchildren, and others.


Feb 27, 2012

An unsung inventor before Steve Jobs. Interesting that sometimes, science and technology are better self-taught than learn from a school.

Rory L. Stephens
Feb 27, 2012

Those of you interested in learning more about Inventions by African Americans, might want to try "Black Inventors Museum". It's unfortunate that our education system mis educated us:some of us more than others, about world history and our role in society specifically.For so many years our youth were led to believe all Black people have done in America(except for a select few)was be in slaved, smoke crack and gang bang. We are and have always contributed to the prosperity of America. I never liked Black History Month, its a shame, just tell the truth about World History and we wouldn't need a month. Nice article keep them coming.

Celeste Bozymowski
Feb 15, 2021

Great man and great article. I'll look at refrigerated trucks with a grateful smile.