Legendary Minnesotan: Frederick Mckinley Jones

Frederick McKinley Jones and drafting team, c.1960. Image is from the Frederick Jones papers (1910–196-), Mansucripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. - Click for link
Frederick McKinley Jones and drafting team, c.1960. Image is from the Frederick Jones papers (1910–196-), Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul. - Click for link

The man hasn't been with us since February 21, 1961...but his innovations are because he revolutionized the food industry. From fixing cars to saving lives on the battlefield, Frederick McKinley Jones is a true Legendary Minnesotan.

Who Is Frederick McKinley Jones?

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1893, Jones' mother deserted him early on, then his father wasn't much able to raise him and died when Fred was still young. Eventually, after much moving around, the young man (anywhere from 11 to 16-year-old by different accounts), moved back to Cincinnati and got a job.

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He worked as a janitor, self-taught mechanic (even building race cars), and eventually, a shop foreman. When he turned 19, he was building and racing cars. Again, all self-taught

Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Historical Society

During World War 1, he was a U.S. Army sergeant and rewired his camp for electricity, telephone, and telegraph service. Discharged in 1919 he finally moved to Minnesota, and his legend began.

In Hallock, Minnesota, he really dug into electronics, even building a radio station transmitter for a local station. In the winter, he ski-flew-drove doctors to their housecalls in his winged, propellered car on skis. Basically, an early snowmobile with a huge propeller.

An avid inventor, and a great listener, he heard doctors complain about patients having to come to them for x-rays, so Frederick McKinley Jones invented the portable x-ray machine. He should have made a fortune off that invention alone, but he didn't patent it and others stole his ideas as their own.

Didn't matter, he kept creating new projects, including turning silent movie projectors into "talking" projectors with scrap metal he found laying around. He also created ways to stabilize the movie. Oh, and invented and had patented the automatic-ticket machine for movie theaters.

That is all incredible, right? And remember, all here in Minnesota. He was already legendary on those merits alone. But the biggies were still to come.

He was working for Joseph Numero as an electrical engineer, and Numero said, "Hey, we need to find a way to improve truck refrigeration...we're losing lots of products from spoilage." Eventually, Jones came up with a unique concept at the time, a self-contained refrigeration unit that really worked.

Frederick McKinley Jones Revolutionizes the Shipping and Grocery Business

All from right here in Minnesota, Numero and Jones created ThermoKing and...

"Grocery chains were now able to import and export products that previously could only have been shipped as canned goods. As a result, the frozen food industry was born and for the first time consumers could enjoy fresh foods from around the globe and U.S. Thermo became a multimillion-dollar company." (Source)

But wait, it wasn't just getting blueberries to market that makes Jones legendary, it was saving lives during World War II, too. He created air-condition units for field hospitals and special refrigeration units for military field kitchens...all used to store blood serum and medicines. That all translated into saving a ton of American lives.

County Courthouse Hallock, MN - Courtesy MNHS
County Courthouse Hallock, MN - Courtesy MNHS

Frederick McKinley Jones received many many honors over his life, the first Black man to receive many of the honors. He retired from ThermoKing in the 1950s, due to health concerns, then lung cancer killed him in 1961. With over 60 patents, Jones was the first Black American to be awarded the National Medal of Technology (posthumously).

"Frederick Jones hasn’t gotten all the credit he deserved throughout the years for a couple of reasons. He failed to apply for patents on his earlier inventions. But also, he was a half-Black man inventing things in the early American 20th century. Everywhere he went, people doubted his abilities, but they usually thawed out once they saw what he was capable of. Fred was a self-made man, and it’s clear that he always took his own advice: be willing to work, be willing to read and study to enrich your life, and always believe in yourself." (Source)

Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Historical Society

And that's Legendary Minnesotan, Frederick McKinley Jones.

As always, if you have a comment, complaint, or concern about something I wrote here, please let me know: james.rabe@townsquaremedia.com

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