Black History Month: Fredrick McKinley Jones

On May 17, 1893, Fredrick McKinley Jones was born in Covington, Kentucky. He was a dedicated black inventor who was awarded more than 61 patents. Jones had an Irish father and a black mother,  who both died before he reached age 10. Father Ryan, a Catholic priest, took him in and enrolled him in elementary school. Jones endured in school for two years before deciding to run away to Cincinnati.  

At age 11, he found a job as a janitor in R.C. Crothers garage and became interested in learning auto mechanics. The owner eventually let him tinker with automobiles in his spare time. He began to read and study mechanics and became a self-taught prodigy.

 When Jones reached age 14, the owner hired him as a full-time mechanic. After a year of mechanic work, Jones became the shop’s foreman. 

On the side, he designed race cars for the owner to compete in the local racing circuit. 

He desperately wanted to race the cars he built, but the owner refused, so he began racing during company time. This led to Jones being fired at age 17, so he continued his life’s journey to the South.
In the South, he experienced racism and unemployment and was forced to offer services of labor in exchange for food. Over the next few years, he received jobs that required him to go to other parts of the country. These jobs included a sightseeing paddle steamer in St. Louis and a  mechanic in Chicago.  Then in Minneapolis, a job as a janitor and boiler in a hotel led to a job offer from Oscar Younggren, in Hallock, Minnesota. Jones traveled 400 miles to Hallock, Minnesota, to work as a master mechanic on a 50,000-acre farm owned by James J. Hill.  The farm was named Humboldt and was eventually split and managed by Mr. Hill’s son, Walter Hill.  While working at the farm, he learned more about electrical generating, began to study electronics, and  earned his engineering license at age 20. While residing in Hallock, he was drafted into World War 1, teaming with a black Army unit located in France. The military quickly learned of his mechanical skills and he became a sergeant in charge of maintaining communications,  electronic equipment, running electric, telephone, and telegraph lines, fixing X-ray machines  and repairing vehicles.  Then in 1919, Jones was discharged, and he moved back to Hallock, Minnesota. His previous inventions began to thrive, but he never patented the inventions. His hard work was accredited to other individuals.  Those intentions included the condenser microphone, personal radios, and a snowmobile made from airplane fuselage and four skis. He soon became a projectionist at the Hallock movie theater, where he invented a soundtrack unit to hear sound with motion pictures.  Jones also invented the ticket machine that delivered movie tickets and returned the change. Jones received his first patent on the ticket machine on June 17, 1939.   His technical skills caught the notice of Joseph Numero, the owner of Cinema Supplies. He offered him a job as an electrical engineer, which changed Jones’ life forever.  In 1938, Joseph  Numero met with Henry Werner, an executive in the trucking industry. Werner was having trouble keeping products from spoiling and overheating in transit. Numero offered Jones a  chance to create a refrigeration unit in a truck, and within weeks Jones created a shockproof cooling unit. The invention received a U.S patent on July 12, 1940, and Numero sold his company to RCA. 

Jones and Numero formed a partnership called the U.S. Control Company, which is now called  Thermo King. Thermo King is worth $2.56 Billion today. Fredrick McKinley Jones died on Feb.  21, 1961. It’s hard to imagine what America would look like today without his inventions.

Frederick McKinley