McKinley was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and orphaned as a young child. He was then raised by a priest in Kentucky until he was 16. He worked as a pinsetter in a bowling alley and then became a mechanic. In 1917 he joined the armed forces and served in France.
After the war he became a garage mechanic, but he soon began inventing, where he became famous. Among the 61 patents granted to him were those for a self-starting gasoline (petrol) motor, an adapter for silent movie projectors to cope with sound film, a ticket-issuing machine that made its own change, and a portable X-ray machine. But he had most influence as a refrigeration engineer and inventor (40+ patents), and in particular, it was McKinley who developed mobile refrigeration for trucks and railroad cars, doing away with the laborious and risky practice of packing perishable goods in ice for long-distance transport: he made modern-day long-haul refrigerated shipping of food possible. He also invented portable air conditioning for military field hospitals (vital for the storage of blood and medicines) and kitchens.
He was the first Black member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers, and in later life he was an advisor to the US Defense Department and the Bureau of Standards.
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