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Our Rich History: Regional African-American inventor and WWI veteran, Fred McKinley Jones, honored

By Lois Hamill
Special to NKyTribune

The pocket watch had stopped ticking. The little boy took it apart to see what was inside. After he put it back together, it began ticking again. Satisfied with the results, he proudly shared his discovery with his father. Fred Jones was reportedly only five years old at the time.

Frederick McKinley Jones, courtesy of The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky and the Minnesota Historical Society.

Frederick McKinley Jones was born on May 17, 1893 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the son of an African-American mother and an Irish father. Some sources cite his birthplace as Covington, others as Cincinnati. His military discharge papers credit Cincinnati (Box 5, Folder 7, MS-20 Theodore H.H. Harris Local History Research Papers, Eva G. Farris Special Collections, W. Frank Steely Library, Northern Kentucky University).

From a young age, Fred was curious about mechanical things, taking them apart to see how they fit together. His father placed him, at about age eight, in the care of Rev. William B. Ryan, a Roman Catholic priest, so that Fred could receive an education. The transition from doing what interested him to the regimentation of school wasn’t easy, but Fred learned the reading and mathematical skills he later used as an extraordinary inventor, engineer and mechanical genius.

In the early 20th century, meat and agricultural produce easily spoiled during cross-country transport. Jones designed a successful method for refrigerating truck contents. He served in France during WWI with the U. S. Army’s 809th Pioneer Infantry Regiment. During WWII, his cooling applications were used to cool airplane cockpits and engines. He invented a refrigeration unit to safely move blood plasma within the war’s Pacific theater.

Although Jones held dozens of patents, his most significant contributions were for mechanical refrigeration in trucks and trains, and air conditioning in automobiles. His mechanical genius enabled Joseph Numero to found U.S. Thermo King Control Company. Jones was head of Thermo King’s experimental division when he retired.

Opening of the Visionary Veterans exhibit at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by Jeanne Theismann. Source: this website.

Fred Jones was an outstanding engineer whose curiosity, willingness to experiment, and innate mechanical genius led to inventions in refrigeration from which we still benefit today. He was also a military veteran. The combination of being an outstanding inventor and a WWI veteran has earned Jones inclusion in a national exhibit. He is one of five honored in the Visionary Veterans exhibit at the National Inventors Hall of Fame, Alexandria, Virginia. The exhibit opened in November 2017 and runs through September 2018. See the website.

So what does this have to do with NKU? An employee of the National Inventors Hall of Fame contacted the NKU Special Collections and University Archives during summer 2017, conducting background research on Fred Jones for the exhibit. Theodore (Ted) Harris, member of the first graduating class (1973) of Northern Kentucky State College (NKU), is a historian and researcher from Covington, Kentucky who specializes in local and regional African-American history. Ted donated his research files from work for The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, including research on Jones, to our archives. They form part of MS-20 Theodore H.H. Harris Local History Research Papers. I provided information from the Harris Papers about Fred Jones to the researcher. See this website.

Ted Harris, who is proud of his family’s African-American heritage, donated his research to the NKU Special Collections and University Archives. It reflects his passion for documenting local and regional history, particularly African-American history. We are excited to celebrate Fred Jones’ contributions, and Ted Harris’ gift of history. Our department shares Ted’s passion for preserving our region’s history. We collect and preserve this history in order to make it available to others now and for the future.

Contact us if you would like to conduct research or to donate materials.

Lois Hamill, C.A. is University Archivist and Associate Professor at NKU. She directs the Eva G. Farris Special Collections and Schlachter University Archives there. Hamill is the author of Archives for the Lay Person: a Guide to Managing Cultural Collections, as well as Archival Arrangement and Description: Analog to Digital. She can be contacted at: 859-572-5863 or hamilll1@nku.edu. The archive’s website is available at: http://steelyarchives.nku.edu/

Lois Hamill, 2018. Photo by Paul A. Tenkotte

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