Thermo King’s Mechanical Marvel
1938 marked the beginning of the end of the “ice age” in transport refrigeration. Limited quantities of poultry, dairy products, and meat had been carried in trucks with wet ice and salt as a refrigerant. Cargos suffered a high percentage of spoilage in transit during delays in unloading. Brine overflow from the ice barrels caused damage to the truck body and understructure.
Mechanical refrigeration was already replacing the ice in commercial and home use but was unheard of in transport. Many trucking companies realized that there was great potential in hauling perishable commodities but would not go into this type of operation unless they could find a better means of refrigeration.
In 1938, the forerunner of Thermo King Corp. built its first mechanical refrigeration unit for a trailer. The three men who made trailer refrigeration possible were Joseph Numero, a lawyer turned entrepreneur who owned a movie theater; M.B. Green, a business school graduate who formed a quasi-partnership with Numero; and Frederick McKinley Jones, a self-taught African American handyman who worked for Numero at the movie theater.
The story of how the first refrigeration unit was born is an industry classic. One sultry summer afternoon Numero was playing golf with Harry Werner, founder of Werner Transportation Co., and an unnamed air conditioner “expert.” Werner was called to the phone to hear that one of his rigs had broken down and 10 tons of perishable food had to be thrown away.
Exasperated, he turned to the air conditioning man and said, “If you can cool a whole theater, why can’t you cool my trailers?” The expert gave a hundred reasons why it couldn’t be done. But, on impulse, Numero blurted, “We’ll build you a unit … in 30 days!”
Back at the theater, Numero challenged Jones to the task, and the handyman-turned-engineer immediately went into action. He obtained a 4-cylinder Waukesha engine, picked up components here and there, scoured junkyards for needed parts, and put them all together in a huge package. It was clumsy, cumbersome, weighed 2,800 lbs, and was mounted under the trailer with a lot of external plumbing. But it worked, at least when the trailer was standing still. On the road, however, dirt clogged the system and jammed the controls.
Jones went back to his shop, shaved off 400 lbs, made numerous improvements, and the Thermo King Model A went to market. Yet all agreed that a better location was needed. Next came the nose-mounted self-contained version, and the rest of the story is history. Vast improvements followed, including diesel or propane power, sophisticated controls, and the ability to heat as well as cool. Within a few years, it opened vast new opportunities for long-haul trucking and boosted the fledgling frozen food industry to a prominent place on the nation’s dining room tables.