Listen to this article here
In 1989, Dr. Lonnie Johnson formed his own engineering firm and licensed his most famous invention, the Super Soaker® water gun, to Larami Corporation. Two years later, the Super Soaker®, generated over $200 million in retail sales, and became the number one selling toy in America.
As an African American born into a segregated Alabama on October 6, 1949, Lonnie George Johnson overcame societal and racial hurdles with the support of his parents who helped to set the wheels of his young analytical mind in motion. In a 2016 essay with the BBC, Johnson wrote about early memories of his father’s teachings:
It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow – one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that.”
Lonnie later attended the all-black Williamson High School in Mobile where he was nicknamed “The Professor” by his friends, according to Smithsonian.
A defining moment in his life came in 1968 when he represented his high school at a science fair sponsored by the University of Alabama. As the only Black student competing, he won first prize for “Linex,” a compressed-air-powered robot he had created out of junkyard scraps and other spare parts. Despite his success, he later recalled “The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition was “goodbye’ and “y’all drive safe, now.’”
However, Johnson’s obvious Black excellence would not be dismissed for long. According to his website, Johnson would soon enter Tuskegee University and earned a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering, an M.S. degree in Nuclear Engineering, and an honorary Ph.D. in Science. Upon graduation, he worked as a research engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and then joined the U. S. Air Force, serving as Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In 1979, he left the Air Force to accept a position as Senior Systems Engineer at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where he worked on the Galileo mission to Jupiter. Returning to the Air Force in 1982, he served as an Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer at Strategic Air Command (SAC) headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, and as Chief of the Data Management Branch, SAC Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Larami Corporation was eventually purchased by Hasbro Corporation, the second largest toy manufacturer in the world. Since then, Super Soaker® sales have totaled close to one billion dollars. Currently, Lonnie Johnson holds over 100 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.
Two of Johnson’s companies, Excellatron Solid State and Johnson Battery Technologies, Inc. (JBT) are actively developing revolutionary energy technology.
According to his website, JBT is introducing a new generation of rechargeable battery technology which has the potential to revolutionize the battery industry. Providing a source of energy many times that which exists today in a substantially reduced size, this technology will solve many of the problems related to technology mobility in the future.