African-American Transportation History: Frederick McKinley Jones, Inventor

Frederick McKinley “Casey” Jones (1893-1961) was a Kentucky-born inventor who revolutionized and enhanced the long-distance transportation of perishable goods. The son of an African-American mother and Irish father, Jones overcame a great deal of racial discrimination and numerous other hurdles to achieve a long and prodigious career that has benefitted the lives of people worldwide.

Jones, whose formal education never went beyond the sixth grade, demonstrated early on his formidable mechanical abilities and innovative mind. As a child, for example, he would take apart everything from toys to kitchen appliances to study their inner workings.

Transportation started playing a huge role in Jones’ life at a young age. By the time he was 12, he had a job sweeping in an automobile repair garage in Cincinnati. Aspiring to work on the vehicles that would end up in the garage, became a self-taught mechanic. He was only 15 when he became foreman of the garage’s repair shop. During his spare time, Jones designed race cars for the garage owner to drive on the tracks at local competitions.

Jones himself was barred from racing cars in those competitions due to his skin color. Frustrated by such limitations on his capabilities, he quit his job at the garage when he was 17 and made his way south of Ohio to pursue new employment opportunities. Job openings for young African-American men were few and far between at the time, but Jones did finally find work feeding coal into the firebox of a paddleboat in St. Louis. He ultimately returned north, though, to briefly work as a mechanic at a Cadillac repair garage in Chicago.

In 1912, Jones moved to the city of Hallock in northwestern Minnesota for new opportunities. He soon found employment there as a mechanic on a 30,000-acre (12,140.6-hectare) farm owned by Walter Hill, the son of prominent Canadian-American railroad executive James J. Hill. With the help of both an engineer also working on the farm and a host of materials from the local public library and mail-order courses, Jones diligently studied for state exams so that he could earn an engineering license, earning the highest-grade license available to engineers certified in Minnesota.

Over the next couple of decades, Jones further increased his already considerable wealth of mechanical and electrical skills. His career as an inventor began in earnest and on a much larger-than-before scale during the 1930s. A major milestone in this regard took place in 1939, when he was issued his first patent (U.S. Patent 2,163,754). This patent was for an automatic ticket-dispensing machine to be used in movie theaters.

Jones made his biggest impact as an inventor, however, through his technological breakthroughs for the improved refrigeration of temperature-sensitive food products being shipped over long distances. He joined entrepreneur Joseph A. “Joe” Numero to form the U.S. Thermo Control Company (later known as Thermo King Corporation) to create systems for ensuring the success of such deliveries.

As part of these efforts during the 1940s, Jones developed a means for refrigerating the interior of a long-haul truck’s tractor-trailer and thereby preventing the spoilage of food transported in the vehicle. Jones was inspired to develop this cooling device after a truck driver told him about losing a large shipment of food after the tractor-trailer’s storage compartment overheated during a long-distance trip. Jones’ innovation vastly improved the safe transport of food over long distances. The device was eventually adapted for use on other modes of travel such as trains, ships, and airplanes.

At least 40 of Jones’ other patents would in one way or another seek to add to or improve upon that innovation. These patents included his final one (U.S. Patent 2,926,005), which was granted a year before his death in Minneapolis at the age of 67. This final patent was for a thermostat and control system for controlled spaces; according to the specifications for that system, “the invention is concerned with vehicles in which perishable products are transported.”

In the time since his death, Jones has continued to be honored for his significant and even life-saving contributions to the transportation of goods across the globe. He was inducted into the Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame in 1977. In 1991, Jones was posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H.W. Bush. Jones was the first African-American to receive this honor.

Jones, who has been nicknamed the King of Cool by Heavy Duty Trucking magazine editor Tom Berg, made clear his approach to handling life’s challenges in a speech that he gave in 1953. “Don’t be afraid to work,” he said. “Don’t listen to others tell you you’re wrong. Remember, nothing is impossible. Go ahead and prove you’re right.”

For more information on Frederick McKinley “Casey” Jones, please check out http://www.msthalloffame.org/frederick_mckinley_jones.htm.

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