Johnson, Lonnie G. 1949–
Lonnie G. Johnson 1949–
Squirt guns used to be benign little things, lacking the firepower to do any serious dampening. But that was before Lonnie G. Johnson came along. Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker, has changed the way we think about recreational drenching. While revolutionizing waterarms will forever be Johnson’s main claim to fame, people who know about such things think his spacecraft cooling systems and rechargeable power storage devices are pretty good too.
Lonnie George Johnson was born on October 6, 1949, the third of six children. He grew up in Mobile, Alabama, where his father was employed as a civilian driver at the local Air Force base. His mother was primarily a homemaker, with occasional stints as a laundry worker or nurse’s aid.
Johnson’s inventing skills were apparent early on. As a child, he was inspired by the historic feats of George Washington Carver, and he showed great aptitude in science and math. Johnson and his brothers spent hours fashioning go-carts powered by lawn mower engines, and weapons that shot projectiles from pressurized chambers. Johnson made his biggest bang, literally, cooking up a batch of rocket fuel in the family kitchen. The homemade fuel recipe eventually came out right, resulting in the launch of a miniature rocket Johnson built for a school project.
But Johnson’s breakthrough invention was probably the remote-controlled robot, named Linex, he constructed during his senior year in high school. Linex earned Johnson first prize in a statewide science fair in 1968, the University of Alabama Junior Engineering Technical Society Exposition. The robot, inspired by the Robinson family’s bubble-headed companion on the 1960s television series Lost in Space, was constructed from a combination of junkyard pickings, walkie-talkie innards, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder belonging to Johnson’s sister.
After graduating from high school, Johnson entered Tuskegee University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1973, followed by a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering three years later. After receiving his M.S., Johnson joined the Air Force, serving for a couple years in the late 1970s as acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory near Albuquerque, where he worked on methods for using atomic energy in space. In 1979 Johnson moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, a renowned center for research and experimentation on aerospace technology. There he worked as a senior systems engineer on the Galileo mission, helping to develop nuclear power systems for the &1.6 billion spacecraft designed to study Jupiter and its 16 moons. After three years there, Johnson returned to the Air Force, and was assigned to Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, where he worked on non-nuclear strategic weapons technology, followed by a three-year stint on the Stealth bomber program at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Over the course of his Air Force career, Johnson
At a Glance…
Born Lonnie George Johnson on October 6, 1949, in Mobile, AL; father was a civilian driver at local Air Force base, mother was a homemaker and sometimes laundry worker or nurse’s aid; married with children. Education: Tuskegee University, B.S., mechanical engineering, 1973, M.S., nuclear engineering, 1976.
Career: U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory, acting chief of Space Nuclear Power Safety section, 1978–79; Jet Propulsion Laboratory, senior systems engineer, Galileo Project, 1979–82, engineer on Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for Comet Rendezvous and Saturn Orbiter Probe missions, 1987–91; U.S. Air Force, Advanced Space Systems Requirements manager for non-nuclear strategic weapons technology, 1982–85, Strategic Air Command, chief of data management branch, 1985–87; Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., founder and president, 1991-.
Awards: First place, University of Alabama Junior Engineering Technical Society Exposition, for “Linex the Robot,” 1968; elected to Pi Tau Sigma National Engineering Honor Society, 1973; Air Force Commendation Medal, 1979, 1986; Air Force Achievement Medal, 1984; inducted into Inventor’s Hail of Fame, 2000; Golden Torch Award, National Society of Black Engineers, 2001.
Addresses: Office — Johnson Research & Development, Inc., 1640 Roswell Street, Suite J, Smyrna, GA 30080.
received numerous honors, including two Commendation Medals and the Air Force Achievement Medal. He was also nominated for NASA astronaut training in 1985.
Johnson left the military in 1987 and returned to the Jet Propulsion Lab, where he worked on the Mars Observer Project and the Cassini mission to Saturn. Meanwhile, Johnson had dabbled with various inventions in his spare time throughout his career in both the military and civilian aerospace industries. The idea for the invention that eventually made him famous popped into his head in 1982, while he was fiddling in his home workshop with a model of a heat pump that used water instead of Freon, a gas known to harm the Earth’s ozone layer. Hooking the pump up to the bathroom sink, Johnson was amazed to witness a powerful stream of water shoot across the room. It immediately occurred to him that the same idea could be used for an awesome squirtgun. The concept for the Super Soaker, first called the Power Drencher, was born.
Johnson built a prototype for his pneumatic water gun out of PVC pipe, a plastic Coke bottle, and Plexiglas. He set his six-year-old daughter, Aneka, loose in the neighborhood armed with the new device, and it instantly received rave reviews from the other local kids. The revolutionary thing about Johnson’s squirt gun was that it allowed the shooter to build up a huge amount of pressure by pumping air into a chamber with repeated pump strokes before shooting, as opposed to conventional water weaponry, which fired only with the pressure of a single trigger pull. He applied for a patent on October 14, 1983, eventually receiving U.S. patent number 4,591,071.
While Johnson had the idea and the patent, he did not have the resources to bring the Super Soaker to the public on his own. He spent most of the 1980s trying to find a company willing to manufacture and market his toy. Finally, Johnson caught the attention of a representative of Larami Corporation at a New York toy fair in 1989. He arranged a meeting at Larami’s Philadelphia headquarters. The folks at Larami were immediately impressed, and quickly agreed to take on the Super Soaker.
Later that year, Larami unveiled the first commercially-available Super Soaker, which retailed for &10, an eye-popping price for a squirtgun at that time. By 1990 the new water weapons were practically leaping off of toy store shelves, and two years later the Super Soaker surpassed Nintendo as the number one selling toy in America. In 1991 Johnson left the Jet Propulsion lab to strike out on his own, forming Johnson Research and Development Company, Inc. In 1993 Johnson Research was awarded a contract by NASA to develop the Johnson Tube, a water-based cooling system that is 25 percent more efficient than conventional heat pumps and air conditioners. In 1994 the mayor of Marietta, Georgia proclaimed February 25th “Lonnie G. Johnson Day.”
Over the remainder of the 1990s, Johnson Research dreamed up an array of gadgets for serious scientists and kids alike, ranging from a new type of rechargeable battery to an advanced dart gun, which was licensed to toymaker Hasbro in 1998. By 2001, Johnson had over 80 patents to his name, with another 20 pending. Due out from Johnson Research in 2002 was a revolutionary type of hair curler.
Lonnie G. Johnson may well end up inventing the next generation of rechargeable batteries and the break-through system for powering spaceships that makes space travel as routine as a quick spin to the beach. But even if he never concocts another gizmo, Johnson’s contribution to summer fun, the Super Soaker, is enough to place in him in the pantheon of modern inventors.
Black Enterprise, November 1993, p. 71.
Chicago Tribune, August 14, 2001.
New York Times, July 31, 2001.
Newsweek, June 22, 1992, p. 58.
Time, December 4, 2000, p. 108.
The Invention Dimension: Inventor of the Week, http://web.mit.edu/invent/www/inventorsI-Q/Johnson.html.
Additional material was provided by Johnson Research and Development Company, Inc.
—Robert R. Jacobson