Refrigerated Trucks


Frederick Jones

Refrigerated trucks, invented by Frederick Jones, enable modern commerce. Jones is somewhat of an innowiki aberration in that he 1) invented something useful with enormous impact, 2) successfully commercialized it, 3) managed to keep the business and build it out, and 4) was a minority.

We’d like to have a long list of innovators with these attributes but it just doesn’t happen all that often. Two-thirds don’t even make money from their own work, much less do it while working under the stress of racism in the United States in the 1940s.

Jones was a self-taught engineer. African Americans could theoretically enter engineering schools during this time but, as MIT delicately puts it: “only a few students of color were able to take advantage of educational opportunities.”

Jones was bi-racial and, depending on the history either abandoned by his parents. Whichever the case, he was raised by a priest in Cincinnati starting at age seven. Sent to work as a janitor at age 11, his mechanical aptitude landed him a job as in auto repair by age 14. Eventually, in 1912, he moved to Minnesota to work as a mechanic on an enormous farm.

Despite segregation and over racism his engineering skills shined in WWI where he learned more advanced mechanical devices. During the interwar period, Jones invented refrigerated trucking.

In WWII, his trucks were especially useful for transporting blood and his company, US Thermal Control Company (later renamed Thermo-King), grew much larger. After the war, they eventually became ubiquitous in the grocery industry.

Despite his work was useful in both wartime and civilian infrastructure, enabling the modern grocery store, there was little recognition beyond commercial success during his lifetime. He died in 1961. Thirty years later, in 1991, President Bush Sr. posthumously awarded Jones the National Medical of Technology.

Eventually, in 1997, Ingersoll Rand acquired Jones’ Thermo-King for $2.56B in cash, where it remains today as a functioning company.

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