Lonnie G. Johnson is widely known as the man behind the Super Soaker water gun. He is an engineer who also worked on high-performance Nerf dart guns. In recent times, his inventions are concentrated and related to clean energy.
Lonnie G. Johnson was born on 6th October 1949. His hometown was in Mobile, Alabama. His mother worked as a nurse aid, while his father was a World War II veteran who later worked as a civilian driver at Air Force bases. His family is comprised of six children.
2. Early childhood interests
- Lonnie Johnson learned creativity and being innovative from his father, who was a skilled handyman. From childhood, he started experimenting with various ideas. As a small child, he crafted a chinaberry shooter out of bamboo sticks that shot projectiles under pressure with his father.
- As a 13-year-old, he built a go-kart from junkyard scraps and attached it to a lawnmower engine.
- All these were part of his growing interest and curiosity about the way things work. Much to the detriment of his family, he continued experimenting as he wanted to become an infamous inventor one day. His mother recalls him experimenting with rocket fuel, where he attempted cooking it and almost burnt the whole house down.
Lonnie Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-black segregated school. Despite his intelligence and creativity, his teacher advised him not to aspire beyond a career as a technician. He gained inspiration from the story of the then famed African American inventor George Washington Carver.
4. He was nicknamed “The Professor.”
his high school friends nicknamed him ‘The Professor’ due to his intelligence and creativity.
5. He was the only black student in a competition.
In 1968, Lonnie Johnson represented his school at a science fair competition sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) at the University of Alabama. He was the only black student among a white-dominated congregation. His presentation was of a robot called ‘The Linex.’ The robot was built from junkyard scraps for over a year. He emerged the winner.
6. Higher education
- From high school, Lonnie Johnson enrolled in Tuskegee University in 1969. The university was a black-only college.
- He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Mechanical Engineering in 1973.
- He also earned his Masters in Nuclear Engineering degree from the same college (1975).
7. Personal Life
Lonnie Johnson is married to Linda Moore. The father of four lives in Ansley Park, Atlanta, Georgia.
8. Role in society
- Lonnie Johnson is a board chairman of the Georgia Alliance for Children. He is also a member of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. The organization mentors high school and college students.
- He was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011.
9. The Super Soaker invention
While working in the Air Force, Lonnie Johnson still managed to find time to pursue his inventions. He completed a prototype of a heat pump that was environmentally friendly in 1982. The pump used water instead of Freon. To test his water pump, he pulled the pump’s lever and blasted a powerful stream of water to a water tub where he had aimed the nozzle. Johnson recalled that what he felt was pure delight.
After seven years of working tirelessly and sale-pitching for his heat pump, he sold the device to Larami Corporation. At the time, it was referred to as a “Power Drencher.”
The device failed to make much of a commercial impact. Larami Corporation invested in additional intense marketing efforts and a name change to “Super Soaker.” The Super Soaker then became a successful item.
In 1991, the Super Soaker achieved $200 million in sales. It later ranked annually among the world’s Top 20 best-selling toys.
10. He founded the Johnson Research & Development Centre.
- After the success of the Super Soaker, he was pushed to venture more into invention. In the Johnson Research & Development center, he invented a ceramic battery and hair rollers set without heat. These inventions achieved commercial success.]
- Despite this, not all his inventions were a success. For example, the diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled did not achieve commercial success.
11. Creation of the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC)
Johnson came up with another invention that sought to address matters of greater importance. He aimed to develop an advanced heat engine that could convert solar energy into electricity. Johnson believes that the solar converter could in the future replace fossil fuels and promote renewable energy. His goal is to have twice the efficiency of the methods that were in existence.
12. The Breakthrough Award
In 2008, Lonnie Johnson received the Breakthrough Award. He received it from Popular Mechanics for his JTEC invention.
13. Johnson’s work with PARC
In more recent times, Johnson has been working with the Palo Alto Research Center in California to further his JTEC development.
14. He is the most successful entrepreneurs and inventors of his generation
Lonnie Johnson’s success in the Super Soaker invention and patenting propelled his engineering career further.
However, if he manages to perfect his JTEC solar energy converter invention, there is no doubt that he will earn a much greater place in history. He will be known as one of the seminal figures of the ongoing green technology revolution.
15. Lonnie Johnson received USD 73 million as royalties
After he sold the Super Soaker rights to Hasbro Inc, he received $73 million as royalties. Hasbro Inc. is the corporation that bought off Larami Corporation.
16. The Super Soaker Invention broke even in the market before the incubation period.
The success of his invention earned Lonnie Johnson a place in the history books. He was the first African American to achieve such success.
17. Lonnie Johnson in the US Air Force
- After his master’s degree in 1975, Johnson enlisted in the United States Air Force and was attached to Nebraska. He served in Strategic Air Command, where he helped create the stealth bomber fighter plane.
- Johnson went to work in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979. While there, he worked as a senior systems engineer for two missions; the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
- He went back to US Air Force in 1982 as an Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer at Strategic Air Command.