Trailer Talk

Minnesota to Honor Thermo King's Fred Jones, Who Invented Early Mechanical Transport Reefers

November 3, 2010

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It's been 72 years since Fredrick McKinley Jones devised what is claimed to have been the first successful mechanical refrigeration system for truck-trailers, and his story goes beyond invention.
Weight was a problem even when Fred Jones invented his early transport refrigeration equipment, and he found ways to wring out many pounds from Thermo King units while making them hold up to road vibrations.
Weight was a problem even when Fred Jones invented his early transport refrigeration equipment, and he found ways to wring out many pounds from Thermo King units while making them hold up to road vibrations.
He was a Negro - today we say African-American - who overcame biases of the early 20th Century through genius, hard work and personality.

Now the State of Minnesota is honoring him for all of it, by inducting him posthumously into its Science and Technology Hall of Fame. The awards ceremony and celebration is today, Nov. 3, from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

It's been three years since I first learned about Fred Jones, thanks to an event at Thermo King's headquarters in Bloomington, Minn., when the company dedicated its research & development center to him. TK's executives at that time briefly described his remarkable achievements, and handed out copies of a biography on him, "I've Got an Idea!"


The book was a quick and inspiring read, and I was moved to write a feature about Jones, rather than say a lot about the event, for Heavy Duty Trucking's September 2007 edition. I respect guys and gals who know how to fix things, because I cannot. And I am in awe of people who have the talent to devise mechanical and electrical innovations, because I can barely grasp the basic concepts.

Then I think back to when I grew up in the 1940s and '50s in Milwaukee, when much de facto segregation existed and we white folks kind of expected Negroes to know their place. Still, my mom pointedly introduced us to a black family whose members were nice, hard-working and well-educated, and they were Catholic, like us.

That didn't turn me into a Civil Rights activist in the '60s, but it caused me to think about things. And I made it a point to be nice to anybody who was evidently worth a damn - white, black, whatever. And I like to think I'd have been nice to Fred Jones if I had been born 40 years earlier and had known him. Jones was a drinker, and so was I, and that would've helped us get along.

Mainstream society has honored Jones before, but well after he died in 1961. Thermo King says that in 1991, Jones was the first African-American to be recognized by the United States government with the National Medal of Technology. During his career, Jones was granted more than 40 patents in the field of refrigeration, including an air-conditioning unit for World War II military field hospitals and a refrigerator for military field kitchens.

Jones patented other inventions, including many for the emerging film industry in the '20s and '30s. He received more than 60 patents during his lifetime, TK says. He never got rich on any of them, but he had a home at Thermo King.

It sounds like they're going to be really nice to his memory today in Minneapolis. If you check out my '07 feature about him at, you'll really understand why.

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Author Bio

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Tom Berg

Senior Editor

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.


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