Lonnie G. Johnson biography
African-American engineer and inventor Lonnie G. Johnson was born in Alabama in 1949. After graduating from Tuskegee University with a master's degree, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. His other assignments included working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Johnson also created the Super Soaker squirt gun, which became one of the most popular toys in the world.
Early Life and Education
Lonnie George Johnson was born on October 6, 1949, in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at nearby Air Force bases, while his mother worked in a laundry and as a nurse's aid. During the summers, both of Johnson's parents also picked cotton on his grandfather's farm. Out of both interest and economic necessity, Johnson's father was a skilled handyman who taught his children to build their own toys. When Johnson was still a small boy, he and his dad built a pressurized Chinaberry shooter out of bamboo shoots. At the age of 13, Johnson attached a lawnmower engine to a go-cart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over.
Johnson dreamed of becoming a famous inventor and, during his teenage years, began to grow more curious about the way things worked and more ambitious in his experimentation—sometimes to the detriment of his family. "Lonnie tore up his sister's baby doll to see what made the eyes close," his mother later recalled. Another time, he nearly burned the house down when he attempted to cook up rocket fuel in one of his mother's saucepans and the concoction exploded.
Growing up in Mobile in the days of legal segregation and pervasive racism, Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-black facility, where, despite his precocious intelligence and creativity, he was told not to aspire beyond a career as a technician. Nevertheless, inspired by the story of famed African-American inventor George Washington Carver, Johnson persevered in his dream of becoming an inventor.
Nicknamed "The Professor" by his high school buddies, as a senior, Johnson represented his school at the 1968 Alabama State Science Fair. The fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where, just five years earlier, in 1963, Governor George Wallace had tried to prevent two black students from enrolling in the school by standing in the doorway of the auditorium. Johnson was the only black student in the competition. His entry was a compressed-air-powered robot, called "the Linex," that he had painstakingly built from junkyard scraps over the course of a year. Much to the chagrin of the university officials, Johnson won first prize at the State Science Fair, as well as a reward of $250 and a handsome plaque. "The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition," Johnson later recalled, "was 'Goodbye' and 'Y'all drive safe, now.'"
A year later, in 1969, Johnson graduated from Williamson High School as a member of its last segregated class. He attended Tuskegee University—where his idol George Washington Carver had once taught—on a scholarship, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1973. Two years later, he received a master's degree in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee.
Inventing the Super Soaker
After receiving his master's, Lonnie G. Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force and gradually established himself as an important member of the government scientific establishment. He was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. His other assignments included analyzing plutonium fuel spheres at the Savannah River National Laboratory, and working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Even while working for the Air Force, Johnson continued to pursue his own inventions in his spare time. One of his longtime pet projects was an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon. Johnson finally completed a prototype one night in 1982 and decided to test it in his bathroom. He aimed the nozzle into his bathtub, pulled the lever and blasted a powerful stream of water straight into the tub. Johnson's instantaneous and instinctive reaction, since shared by millions of kids around the world, was pure delight.
In 1989, after another seven years of tinkering and tireless sales-pitching, during which he left the Air Force to go into business for himself, Johnson finally sold his device, renamed the "Super Soaker," to the Larami Corporation, which put it into mass production. The Super Soaker, vastly superior to previous generations of squirt guns, quickly became one of the most popular toys in the world, and has held its ranking among the world's top 20 best-selling toys every year since its creation.
The Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter
Propelled by the success of the Super Soaker, Lonnie Johnson founded his own company, Johnson Research & Development, and went on to acquire more than 100 patents. Some of his inventions, including a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat, have achieved commercial success. Others, including a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled, failed to catch on.
In recent years, however, Johnson developed one of his most ambitious and important inventions to date: the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, an advanced heat engine that can reportedly convert solar energy into electricity with twice the efficiency of current methods, and without any moving parts. While it remains only a prototype, the JTEC has the potential to make solar power competitive with coal, at long last fulfilling the dream of efficient, renewable solar energy.
Since leaving the Air Force, Lonnie Johnson has been one of a rare breed of scientists: the independent inventor working outside the scientific establishment. Had he retired upon patenting the Super Soaker, Johnson would still go down as one of the most successful inventors and entrepreneurs of his generation.
However, if he manages to perfect the JTEC, Johnson will carve out a much greater place in history as one of the seminal figures of the ongoing green technology revolution. Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation sums up the immense importance of Johnson's work: "This is a whole new family of technology ... It's like discovering a new continent. You don't know what's there, but you sure want to explore it to find out ... It has a darn good chance of being the best thing on Earth."
In Recent Years
For his work on the JTEC, Lonnie Johnson received the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics in 2008. More recently, he has been working with the Palo Alto Research Center Incorporated in California to further fund and develop the JTEC. He is hoping that the converter will be operable in the next several years.
In 2011, Johnson was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.
Johnson and his wife Linda Moore have four children and live in the Ansley Park neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia.