Who Made Supermarkets Possible?
By Neenah Payne
Americans take frozen foods, foods shipped across the country, and supermarkets for granted. That allows us to enjoy foods year round when they are out of season in our area but are shipped from California and Florida and elsewhere. However, this was not possible until the 1940s.
The refrigerated truck — one of the most important inventions for agriculture — was created by Frederick McKinley Jones, a largely-self-taught Black American engineer. Patented in the 1940s, Jones’ system installed in trucks, boats, planes, and trains allowed perishable foods to be transported long distances and overseas. Jones’ invention made frozen foods and cold sections in supermarkets possible.
Jones patented his refrigeration system in 1940 and became the co-owner of Thermo King through which he sold his invention. The system improved worldwide food trade. Because of his invention, fresh seasonal produce could be enjoyed throughout the year. Frozen foods, supermarkets, and container shipping were all derived from the work of Frederick Jones.
When We Go To The Supermarket
Frederick McKinley Jones changed the everyday life of all Americans — our access to a broader-based nutrition and our health. However, almost no one knows his name. When we go to the supermarket and/or eat foods shipped from far away, perhaps we will think occasionally about Jones’ inventions that revolutionized our lives, agriculture, and the food industry.
“Frederick McKinley Jones Invented mobile refrigeration, allowing us to purchase fresh produce and frozen foods in any season, and aided in blood serum storage during WWII.”
Black Genius Revolutionized American Food Industry
“This episode discusses the life of inventor Frederick McKinley Jones who survived the Jim Crow era, endured poverty, racism, and discrimination, yet achieved tremendous success in his field as an acclaimed genius.”
This video says Jones’ mother died when he was a toddler, while other sources say she “deserted” him.
I’ve Got An Idea: The Story of Frederick McKinley Jones recounts his life and inventions. One reviewer says:
“Everyone should read this true story of an absolutely incredible, self-made man. Every time you are in a supermarket , buying fresh food or frozen, from all over the world, you will think of Fred McKinley Jones whose genius made it possible.”
Another reviewer writes:
“Awesome story. Fred Jones was an amazing man. Even during Black History Month, I’ve never heard anyone talk about this man. WHY?”
“Frederick McKinley Jones was a brilliant inventor and the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology. He pioneered the science of refrigeration by designing and creating portable air-cooling units for trucks. These early refrigerators revolutionized food transportation, but more importantly, they helped preserve medicine, blood, and rations during World War II.”
One of America’s Greatest Inventors
“Inventor, racecar driver and self-taught engineer Frederick McKinley Jones is recognized as one of America’s greatest inventors. Jones revolutionized the American food industry with his work on refrigerated transportation. He became the first African American to receive the National Medal of Technology and holds over 60 patents.”
Largely Self-Taught Inventor
“Jones was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on May 17, 1893 to a White Irish father and African-American mother. His mother deserted him when he was a child. His father struggled to raise him on his own. After he was virtually orphaned at the age of seven, he was raised by a priest at a Catholic rectory in Cincinnati. Jones left school after 6th grade and left the rectory to return to Cincinnati at age 11, where he got a job first as a cleaning boy and by age 14 he was working as an automobile mechanic. Jones was largely self-taught. He boosted his natural mechanical ability and inventive mind with independent reading and study and the willingness to seek new pastures in his search for advancement, against the odds.
In 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota where he worked as a mechanic on a 50,000-acre farm. He lived there for over 20 years which he would later say in a newspaper article that Hallcock was a place ‘where a man … [was] judged more on his character and ability than on the color of his skin.’ Jones took part in World War 1 in an all-black unit until his mechanical skills where spotted and promoted to sergeant working as an electrician even teaching other soldiers his knowledge.
After service with the U.S. Army in World War I, Jones returned to Hallock; while employed as a mechanic, Jones taught himself electronics and built a transmitter for the town’s new radio station. He also invented a device to combine sound with motion pictures. This attracted the attention of Joseph A. Numero of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who hired Jones in 1930 to improve the sound equipment made by his firm, Cinema Supplies Inc.
Around 1938, Jones designed a portable air-cooling unit for trucks carrying perishable food, and received a patent for it on July 12, 1940. Numero sold his movie sound equipment business to RCA and formed a new company in partnership with Jones, the U.S. Thermo Control Company (later the Thermo King Corporation) which became a $3 million business by 1949. Portable cooling units designed by Jones were especially important during World War II, preserving blood, medicine, and food for use at army hospitals and on open battlefields.
During his life, Jones was awarded 61 patents. Forty were for refrigeration equipment, while others went for portable X-ray machines, sound equipment, and gasoline engines. He died of lung cancer in Minneapolis in 1961, predeceasing his wife Lucille. In an obituary in the Saturday Evening Post it was said ‘Most engineers start at the bottom of a project and work up, but Fred takes a flying leap to the top of the mountain and then backs down, cutting steps for himself and the rest of us as he goes.’”
Prolific Inventor Received Multiple Awards
“Minnesota IT Services (MNIT) is celebrating Black History Month by honoring notable African American figures in technology….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
Film: Black Americans’ Experiences In Canada
“As an organization that works to increase access to land for new and young farmers, we deeply acknowledge the racism and inequality within our food systems. Farming in North America takes place on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples, and is built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC).
Check out the documentaries We Are the Roots [We Are the Roots: Black Settlers and their Experiences of Discrimination on the Canadian Prairies] and Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley to learn more. For agriculture to be truly regenerative, as a society, we must address the embedded racism that permeates our communities and institutions. Major contributions to farming have been made by People of Colour. Despite these contributions to our food systems, BIPOC are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, inequitable food distribution, and the effects of climate change. Today in Canada, Indigenous and Black families are 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than white families…
In the 1920’s, Black farmers made up 14% of farmers in the U.S., but today it is less than 2%, with only 0.4% of U.S. farmland operated by black farmers. We must talk about racism when we talk about farming, farm labour, and land ownership.”
Pourin’ Down Rain: A Black Woman Claims Her Place in the Canadian West is by Cheryl Foggo.
The contrast between their experiences with Jim Crow in the US and their lives in Canada is stark.
Some of the Many Other Blacks Who Revolutionized Our World
- George Washington Carver’s Creation Can Save Humanity Now
- Hidden Roots of Community Supported Agriculture — CSAs
- Black Woman Computer Saved America’s Space Program
- How The Haitian Revolution Changed America
- How African Rice Growers Enriched America
These people made these contributions while they were enslaved or dealing with Jim Crow that put their lives and dignity at risk and limited their opportunities in multiple ways. However, they rose above those challenges and redefined our world in ways that continue to benefit everyone.
Neenah Payne writes for Natural Blaze and Activist Post