In this edition of Learning from InvENtors, we’re discussing an inventor who was eclipsed by his own super awesome invention that made summers so much fun for kids growing up in the ’90s and even now. Lonnie Johnson is the inventor of the Super Soaker® water gun that generated sales of more than $1B.
Lonnie Johnson is an avid inventor with over 100 registered patents.
In the span of 30 years, he has touched industries as diverse as toys, consumer products and energy efficiency. From Alabama to Atlanta, Lonnie Johnson has taken the inventor’s mindset and created a business that’s always a vanguard of innovation. Proving beyond a shadow of a doubt, that his near constant tinkering will revolutionize American technology.
Harnessing the power of the sun, Johnson is currently on course to completely level the field of renewable energy – the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC) may pave the way to affordable solar power.
Beginnings with Science and the South
Lonnie George Johnson was born October 6, 1949, in Mobile, Alabama, as a budding inventor with an insatiable curiosity. His father was a World War II veteran and civilian driver for the nearby Air Force bases while his mother worked as a nurse’s aide. Lonnie became inspired by the work of agricultural scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver. In 1968, he represented his all-black high school at a science fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS) held at the University of Alabama. The only black student in the competition and given the period’s racial tensions, it was an even bigger testament to his talent that Johnson took first prize for his robot powered by compressed-air.
After winning a math scholarship, Johnson attended Tuskegee University. He went on to earn a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s in Nuclear Engineering from the famed historically black university.
USAF, NASA and Toy Success
After graduate school, Johnson worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and joined the United States Air Force as an officer through the ROTC program. He worked on their stealth bomber program and later in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While helping NASA with its Galileo mission to Jupiter, Johnson stumbled onto the idea for a high-powered water gun. He had been working on a heat pump that utilized water in lieu of the environment-damaging Freon. Johnson was awarded the Air Force Achievement medal and two Air Force Commendation medals.
His very first patent came in 1979 for something called the Digital Distance Measuring Instrument, which utilized the same technology as CDs and DVDs. This was way before a meeting with a Larami Corporation representative at the 1989 Toy Fair led to talks about bringing the then-named Power Drencher water gun to market. It sold well, but once the name was changed to Super Soaker®, the toys flew off shelves. Along with the Super Soaker, Johnson is also responsible for the popular Nerf® soft foam dart guns.
The Future of Johnson R&D
Johnson Research & Development Co., Inc. was founded shortly after his success in the toy industry. The technology development company is on the cutting-edge of innovation. This includes work on a high-performance rechargeable battery that come in small sizes, have a long life and no risk of overheating. Johnson founded Johnson Battery Technologies to create this alternative to conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Back to the JTEC or a moment: The Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter is an engine that converts heat directly into electricity with no moving mechanical parts. It’s meant to double the output of the best in solar-energy systems, which provide only 30 percent efficiency. That would cut production costs enough to finally place solar power on a competitive field with coal. The JTEC is still in the laboratory phase, but according to Johnson, it could be used to convert body heat and waste heat from machinery into electricity along with converting heat from the sun.
Johnson’s Achievements and Impact
In 2017, Johnson was inducted into the Atlanta Tribune Hall of Fame. His invention, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015. It’s apparent from the start that Johnson isn’t in this for the accolades. He’s said “inventing is me doing my thing.”
Although that hasn’t stopped him from being recognized: Popular Mechanics magazine awarded his JTEC innovation with its Breakthrough Award and the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame included him among its ranks. Heck, he even got his own day on February 25 thanks to the mayor of Marietta, Georgia.
Don’t be afraid to take a risk now and them. If you see an issue that you can resolve, fix it. Be like Lonnie Johnson and remain persistent in making your vision of things a reality. Just because others haven’t come around to seeing things the way you do, doesn’t mean you’re wrong. Maybe, you’re just ahead of your time.
Definitely something to think about ….