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African American Leaders in Tech: Part 4

The great Minnesota inventor, Frederick Jones

2/28/2020 10:58:27 AM

Inventor Frederick Jones working at a drafting desk.

Pictured Above: Inventor Frederick Jones working at a drafting desk. Photo courtesy of USDAgov.

Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) is celebrating Black History Month by honoring notable African American figures in technology. Every week during the month of February we have celebrated an individual who serves as an inspiration for our work as technologists in government services.

To wrap up our series, we are highlighting a great Minnesotan, Frederick McKinley Jones, who was the first African American to receive the Presidential Medal of Technology. Jones developed and patented the first successful refrigerated transportation system in the world, revolutionizing the availability of perishable items such as food, medicine, and crops. The impact of Frederick Jones’ innovations cannot be overstated, and allows MNIT to be inspired by the ability that technology can transform people’s lives.

"There are 3 things to do to become successful. First, don't be afraid to get your hands dirty. Don't be afraid to work. Try lots of jobs. Work for nothing if you have to, but get the experience. You never know when what you have learned will come in handy. Second, you have to read. Find out what others know. You don't have to buy books. Use libraries! You can educate yourself by reading. All my life has been study and work. That's what I get fun out of. And third, you have to believe in yourself. Don't listen to others tell you you're wrong. Remember, nothing is impossible. Go ahead and prove you're right."

- Frederick Jones, in acceptance speech upon receipt of the Merit Award, Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary

About Frederick Jones

Frederick Jones was born in Kentucky and raised by a single father until at the age of 8, when we went to live at a local catholic church. Those next four years in elementary school were the only formal education that Jones had in his life. At the age of 12, Jones set out on his own, securing a job sweeping at an auto repair shop. Piquing his interest in engineering, he worked his way up to be the shop mechanic after only three years, teaching himself the trade. Jones’s interests, however, went beyond auto repair, and even though he designed racing cars on the side, he quickly became frustrated that he wasn’t allowed to race them himself.

Jones set off from Kentucky and made his way north, working odd jobs until he found himself in Minneapolis working as a janitor. His engineer skills were noticed, and he got a job as a mechanic on a farm in Hallock, Minnesota for Walter Hill, the son of James J. Hill. He used the skills that he learned on the farm to get his engineering license, and worked his way up to earn the highest-grade license possible for an engineer.

In 1930, his reputation as an investor led to a job offer from Ultraphone Sound Systems and its owner, Joe Numero. Numero would later found and own Thermo King, the company that Jones worked for while he developed his transformational refrigeration technologies.

Lifetime of Contributions

  • 1930s – Frederick Jones developed his first patent while working for Ultraphone Sound Systems. The patent was for a movie theatre ticket machine.
  • 1939 – He received a patent for the first successful refrigeration transportation system in the world while working for Thermo King.
  • 1941 – He improved upon the original patent with the revolutionary Model C refrigeration system. The Model C was smaller, lighter, and placed on top of the cab of trucks. During World War II, Thermo King and Jones sold the unit exclusively to the U.S. military to aid in transportation of food and medical supplies. After the war, it was made commercially available and transformed the world.
  • 1944 – He was accepted into the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers as the first African American.
  • 1953 – Received the merit award from Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary for “outstanding achievements which serve as an inspiration for youth.”


By his death in 1961, Frederick Jones had amassed 61 patents to his name, 40 of which were in the field of refrigeration. Jones’s work was recognized after his death by many national organizations. He was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977, in the Minnesota Science and Technology Hall of Fame in 2010, and most notably, he was the first African American to receive the Presidential Medal of Technology in 1991.

Always an inventor, throughout his life, Jones created a portable x-ray machine, built many personal radios, and developed a wireless broadcasting transmitter, among much more.

"A self-taught, African American engineer born in 1893, Jones overcame prejudices his entire life to design and build electronic innovations that forever impacted the world,"

— 2007 dedication of Thermo King's Frederick McKinley Jones Research and Development Center.


Here are some good places to start for secondary research about Frederick Jones:


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