Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, Lonnie Johnson was fascinated by how things worked. He learned the basics about electricity from his dad and learned to repair household items. From dismantling his sister’s dolls to building his own go cart out of scrap metal and a lawn mower engine, his curiosity about engineering and physics continued to grow. In 1968, while attending the segregated Williamson High School in Mobile, Johnson was the only black student to participate in a science fair hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama where his compressed air-powered and remote-controlled robot, Linex, took first prize.
With the help of an Air Force scholarship and scholarship in math, Johnson attended the historically black Tuskegee University earning a BS in mechanical engineering and then a MS in nuclear engineering. Following his education Johnson was called to active duty for the Air Force where his work on nuclear power earned him a position at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the NASA Galileo mission to Jupiter and its moons. Johnson worked on the nuclear power source for the unmanned spacecraft and developed an electric fail-safe to protect the computer memory in the event of a power failure.
From 1979-1991, Johnson continued to work on several NASA and Air Force projects including the B-2 stealth bomber, the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for the Comet Rendezvous Asteroid Flyby (CRAF) and Saturn orbiter (Cassini) missions, the Mars Observer, and non-nuclear strategic weapons systems.
In his spare time, Johnson continued his love of invention. While working on a water-based refrigeration system, Johnson came upon the idea that would eventually become the Super Soaker water blaster. After 7 years of false starts and failures, he licensed his product to the toy company Larami Corp., eventually selling over 20 million Super Soakers in the summer of 1991 (and over $1 billion of Super Soaker products since then). He turned his newfound wealth into several companies in the pursuit of research and development of efficient energy systems and new types of light-weight batteries.
He also founded the Johnson STEM Activities Center (JSAC) in Atlanta, Georgia to expose underserved communities to STEM. In an interview for The Daily Press, John summed up his message to future inventors. “It is about perseverance,” Johnson said. “And the disheartening thing is that, when you come up with a really, really different idea that’s really unique, most people won’t get it. They won’t see the vision that you see. And the only way to make the reality is to persevere. … You understand better than anybody what the potential could be.”
Featured image by Office of Naval Research – https://www.flickr.com/photos/usnavyresearch/24149474954/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52712374