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Just Imagine…A Cool Technology with a Big Impact

Frederick McKinley Jones, Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

The availability of food has long affected urban development. Prior to the availability of refrigeration, cities tended to grow vertically because they needed an agricultural green belt for their food supply. Once refrigeration became widely available, food production could be more distant from urban centers. Cities could grow outward and suburbs started to develop. But then another problem arose. How do you transport food these greater distances without it spoiling? The answer was provided by Frederick McKinley Jones.

Jones was born from a biracial relationship. His mom left the household and his father struggled to raise him. At the age of seven, Jones was sent to live with a priest, and, with the passing of his father two years later, he was effectively orphaned. His formal schooling never went passed the sixth grade.

At the age of 14, Jones became an automobile mechanic and found that he had a natural mechanical ability. He was an avid reader and used this to increase his mechanical knowledge. Jones served in World War I, and when he returned to his work as a mechanic he taught himself electronics.

With Jones’ expanding knowledge of technology, he started a career as an inventor. His talents had been noticed by Joseph Numero, an entrepreneur who ran a movie sound equipment business. Jones came up with his most important invention when a business associate of Numero’s in the trucking business challenged Numero’s engineers to create a refrigerated truck to solve the spoilage problem. Jones invented a portable air-cooling unit for trucks. With this breakthrough, Numero sold off his movie sound company, and formed the Thermo King Corporation in partnership with Jones. Today Thermo King is the global leader in mobile refrigeration.

During World War II, the transportable cooling capacity was critical to the war effort. Jones’ cooling technologies were used to transport blood, medicine, and food to soldiers at the frontline.

Frederick Jones was the first African-American to be awarded the National Medal of Technology. The technology he invented has been one of those largely unheralded but greatly influential developments for shaping our society

Just imagine the influence a person with only a sixth-grade education has had on all of us. Just imagine how much a person who was abandoned as a child has achieved in his life. How might his life story inspire others who have life struggles?

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“Don’t listen to others tell you you’re wrong. Remember, nothing is impossible. Go ahead and prove you’re right.”–Fredrick McKinley Jones


This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.