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.

Traffic Signal

A manually-controlled gas-powered light-switch on London Bridge was the first traffic signal. It was never popular and, in 1869, exploded and hurt the policeman controlling the switch.

Subsequently, there were countless versions of semaphore lights to control traffic. None gained commercial acceptance.

Morgan, who invented the gas mask, also invented and patented the modern traffic signal. General Electric purchased his traffic signal patent for $40,000 in 1923.

As an African American, Morgan (“the Black Edison”), repeatedly struggled to gain acceptance in business circles.

Morgan lost all his money in 1929, due to the Great Depression. He sought government funds as a reward for a daring rescue in 1916, where he and his gas masks saved the lives of 32 people.

He had been written out of the account due to racism, despite that the town Mayor confirmed his ingenuity and heroinism.

Traffic Light History: Note No Mention of Morgan

Gas Mask

Gas masks lower the risk of damage for firefighters and soldiers.

Garret Morgan, the son of freed slaves, developed an early gas mask for use in fires. Hoses dragged along the ground where air was cleaner, because smoke rises. There was also a 15-minute air supply for when air became hopelessly polluted. Patented in 1914, fire departments were the primary customers.

In sales demonstrations, white colleagues pretended to be the inventor to circumvent racial prejudice. His mother was half Native American and his father half white, the son of Confederate Col. John Hunt Morgan.

After the use of poison gas in WWI, Russian Nikolay Zelinsky developed the modern gas mask. Morgan’s mask worked well with fires but it was not designed for chemical warfare. Zelinsky’s mask used carbon filters protect lungs and eyes from chlorine, mustard, and other weaponized gasses.

Niche Marketing

Walker, daughter of freed slaves, is the first self-made millionaire woman and the first self-made millionaire African American (maybe – tax returns suggest it was $600K but she did very well for herself). She invented beauty products for Black people.

Walker was born in a sharecropper’s cabin. She is orphaned at seven. A freelance launderer, she married at 14, is a mother at 17, and a widow at 20. She never attended school but self-taught herself to read.

At 35 she is still a freelance launderer but bald; her hair fell out. Pope figured out this was due to the use of goose fat and other meat-based products, and strong soaps, that Black women used to style their hair. Pope who set up a hair products company and hired Breedlove as an early sales agent.

Breedlove, by then in her late 30’s (the average lifespan for non-white women was 35 years), formed her own company. She claimed to have invented her own beauty products from scratch using money from sales commissions.

Flamboyant and well dressed, Breedlove always focused on selling. She gave generously and openly to charities. At one point, a $10,000 gift to the then young NAACP was the largest donation in its young history. Sales and charity fundraising determined commissions.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground…”

Sarah Breedlove “C.J.” Walker