Childhood & Early Life
Jones was born on May 17, 1893, in Covington, Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, John Jones, was an Irish railroad worker, while his mother was African–American. She had left the family after his birth. He exhibited his talent in mechanics since childhood.
Jones faced a difficult childhood, as his father struggled to manage a job and take care of young Jones. When he was 7, his father sent him to a Catholic priest, Father Ryan, at the local church. Jones assisted in the work at the church and the rectory, while the priest encouraged him to develop his technical skills.
Jones’s father died when he was 9. He continued studying at the church school for 2 more years but ran away at 11, after sixth grade, returning to Cincinnati. His schooling at the rectory was the only formal education he ever had.
Jones began working as a sweeper at a local auto-repair garage. Simultaneously, he worked hard to learn about the mechanics of automobiles. With his skill in mechanics, he soon became a mechanic at the garage. By 15, he was a mechanic foreman.
Jones became interested in car racing. Soon, he started designing racing cars for the garage owner, to be run on the local racing circuit. However, he was considered too young for car racing. Later, after a dispute with the owner, he left and moved to various places in the Midwest and the South in search of work.
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Due to the racial conditions of the region, it was not easy for Jones to find work in the South. He struggled with small jobs, such as steamboat repairs or repairs of farm machinery. He also had a temporary job at a Chicago ‘Cadillac’ garage.
In December 1912, Jones moved to Hallock, Minnesota, where he began working as the in-charge of maintenance of farm machinery and cars on a 50,000-acre farm. However, the stories about how he got work on the farm vary across sources. While working, he extensively studied for the state exams for an engineering license. At 20, he obtained a top-grade engineering license in Minnesota.
During World War I, Jones joined the U.S. army and was posted in France. Because of his mechanical and electrical skills, he was sought for repair works of military vehicles, X-ray machines, and electrical wiring. He became a sergeant before completing his army service and returned to work on the farm in Hallock.
Jones became a part of the Hallock community. He played the saxophone in a community band and also pursued car racing. He continued to design a number of creative devices, such as personal radios, portable X-ray units, and surgical instruments. He built a radio transmitter for the town’s new radio station.
Jones created a soundtrack device for the town’s movie projector. With new movie technologies developing during the 1920s, he designed an inexpensive “sound-on-film” technology for talkies. He made a lens by grinding a glass towel rod for this purpose. As a result of his invention, people enjoyed better sound quality at the movies.
Joseph Numero, the owner of ‘Ultraphone Sound Systems’ of Minnesota, heard about Jones’s talent and knowledge and offered him work. Jones’s job was to improve the quality of the sound equipment manufactured by Numero’s company. Thus, in 1930, he moved to Minnesota. In 1939, he won his first patent, that of a movie theater ticket machine.
Jones entered the field of refrigeration when Numero made an off-hand remark to his friend that his food transportation business needed a refrigerated truck. The friend brought a truck to the company, which Jones examined. Subsequently, Jones designed a refrigeration unit that would survive road jerks and long travels.
Jones’s invention helped eliminate the use of ice and salt, which was comparatively less effective for the preservation of food and perishables during transit. It also helped increase/extend the travel distance. This invention revolutionized and transformed the transportation business.
On July 12, 1940, Jones successfully patented the design of refrigeration for food transport. Jones and Numero together founded the ‘US Thermo Control Company,’ which was later named the ‘Thermo King Corporation.’ He remained associated with the company as a chief engineer and the vice president of engineering. He also looked into the manufacturing and marketing of products (developed from his patents). Jones registered 61 patents, 40 of which were in the field of refrigeration.
In 1941, during World War II, Jones’s portable refrigeration units proved extremely useful and life-saving. These units were taken by helicopters to remote combat locations in Europe, Africa, and the South Pacific. They were used for refrigeration of food, drugs, blood plasma, and water. They were also used for cooling the cockpits of bomber and ambulance planes. Jones also invented an air-conditioning unit for military field hospitals and a snowmobile to connect doctors with patients in remote, snow-covered areas.
In 1944, Jones was elected to the ‘American Society of Refrigeration Engineers.’ He was the first African–American to be elected to the body. During the 1950s, he worked as a consultant for the ‘U.S. Department of Defense’ and the ‘Bureau of Standards.’
In 1953, Phyllis Wheatley Auxiliary honored Jones with a merit award for “outstanding achievements which serve as an inspiration to youth.” In 1977, he was posthumously inducted into the ‘Minnesota Inventors Hall of Fame.’ In 1991, President George Bush posthumously awarded Jones the ‘National Medal of Technology.’ He became the first African–American to be honored with this award.
Jones remained active in the company matters till the mid-1950s, after which he retired unofficially due to health issues. In 1961, he died of lung cancer in Minneapolis. He was interred in the ‘National Cemetery’ at ‘Fort Snelling.’