Lonnie Johnson

Quick Look At Johnson

Lonnie Johnson is an inventor and former NASA engineer best known for his invention of the Super Soaker.

Early Life

Lonnie Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama on October 6, 1949. Johnson, along with his five siblings, was taught by his father, a handyman to build his own toys. At a young age, Johnson and his father built a pressurized chinaberry shooter out of bamboo. At only thirteen years old, he built a go-kart with scraps from a junkyard and a lawnmower engine that he raced on the highway until he was pulled over. He went to an all-Black high school called Williamson High School, where many of his teachers actually discouraged his dream of becoming a technician. Johnson was inspired by the famous Black inventor, George Washington Carver, and kept pursuing his dream. In 1968, he represented his school at a science fair that took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. He was the only Black student in the competition, and he had created a robot called "The Linex" that was created from junkyard scraps. Johnson was the first-place winner of the science fair, but no one from the university acknowledged him afterward. He recalled that all that was said to him and his family during the competition was "Goodbye" and "Y'all drive safe, now." In 1969, Johnson graduated with the last segregated class of Williamson High School. He attended Tuskegee University on a scholarship and graduated in 1973 with his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering.


After graduating from Tuskegee University, Johnson took a job at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a research engineer. Not long after, he joined the U.S. Air Force. Here, he was the Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section where he helped to create a stealth bomber program. In 1979, Johnson left the Air Force to work for NASA. He was a Senior Systems Engineer and worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. During his job at NASA, he worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. In 1982, Johnson went back to the Air Force. He worked at Strategic Air Command as an Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer. He was also the Chief of the Data Management Branch. Even though Johnson already had a busy career as it was, he made the decision to continue working on his own inventions whenever he had the time. For a while, he was working on a heat pump that was environmentally-friendly. One day, he decided to test his prototype in his bathtub, and sure enough, after years of testing, it worked. Since then, many people around the world have found use in Johnson's heat pump. In 1987, he returned to the JPL, where he served as the fault projection engineer of the Mars Observer project. During his time at NASA, Johnson earned multiple awards from NASA for his work and designs. In 1989, He left NASA to build his own success. He opened his own engineering practice and sold his toy, the "Power Drencher" to the Larami Cooperation. After a while, Johnson realized that the name wasn't really helping the water gun, so he changed the name to the Super Soaker, and added to the way he marketed his product. By 1991, the Super Soaker earned over $200 million in sales and was ranked in the top 20 of the world's best-selling toys. In 2003, Larami Corp. was bought by Hasbro Inc., and in 2013, Hasbro Inc. offered a $73 million settlement. Since then, Johnson has received over 100 patents. Currently, he is working on an engine that directly converts heat to electricity called the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter. He believes that it's the key to inexpensive solar power.

Johnson has been an inspiration by overcoming discrimination and doubts and proving that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.