Get to know engineer Lonnie Johnson, founder and president of Johnson Research and Development Co., who invented the wildly-popular Super Soaker water gun, worked on high-performance Nerf dart guns, and focuses today on inventions related to clean energy.
Did you ever enjoy water gun fights as a kid? Well, meet Lonnie Johnson, the man that gave us the most famous water gun — the Super Soaker. Lonnie wasn’t a toymaker, he was actually an Aerospace Engineer for NASA with a resume boasting a stint with the US Air Force, work on the Galileo Jupiter probe and Mars Observer project, and more than 40 patents.
Yes, he is also working on the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC) which converts heat directly into electricity — but it’s the squirt gun he created that has given us all the most joy.
Lonnie Johnson (inventor) Biography
Lonnie George Johnson (born October 6, 1949) is an African American inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur, whose work includes a U.S. Air Force-term of service and a twelve-year stint at NASA, where he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He invented the Super Soaker water gun in 1989, which has been among the world’s bestselling toys ever since. He also invented the Nerf Gun when he patented “a pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile” which revolutionised toy blasters.
Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, who finished high school, worked as a nurse’s aide and his father, who didn’t finish high school, was a World War II veteran. He explained the basic principles of electricity to Johnson at an early age. Stating that he “always liked to tinker with things,” Johnson earned the nickname “the Professor” from kids in the neighborhood. He once tore up his sister’s doll to see what made the eyes close. He also tried to cook up rocket fuel in a sauce pan but in doing so almost burned down the house.
As a teenager, Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-black school in Mobile. He drew much of his inspiration from George Washington Carver. In 1968, Johnson represented his high school at a science fair in Alabama, where he was the only black student attending the fair; This was a time when African Americans had very little presence in science. There, he presented a robot he created, which he named “Linex,” taking home the first-place prize. The robot was powered by compressed air.
In 1969, shortly after graduating from high school, Johnson attended Tuskegee University, obtaining a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. He also holds an honorary Ph. D. in Science from Tuskegee University. He then worked for the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber program, before eventually joining NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979.
Johnson first conceived the Super Soaker while doing work with the U.S. Air Force. Initially called the “Power Drencher” when it first appeared in toy shops in 1990, it eventually got its trademark name after some tweaks and remarketing. Selling between $10 to $60 depending on the model, the Super Soaker took off, generating $200 million in sales in 1991. Shortly after making the deal for the Super Soaker with the Larami Corporation, Larami became a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc. in February 1995.
Johnson holds more than 250 patents, most of which are for his Super Soaker. Johnson was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal. He received several awards from NASA for his work in spacecraft system design at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 2008, he was awarded the Breakthrough Award from science magazine Popular Mechanics for his work related to JTEC and was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2015, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Johnson is married to Linda Moore, they have four children, and live in the Ansley Park district of Atlanta, Georgia. Johnson tweaked the design of the water gun, replacing the water in the Super Soaker with a “toy [Nerf] projectile.” In 1996, Johnson received A U.S. Patent 5553598 A for “Pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like”, thus inventing the modern Nerf gun.
In February 2013, Johnson filed suit against Hasbro after he discovered that he was being underpaid royalties for the Super Soaker and several Nerf line of toys. In November 2013, Johnson was awarded nearly $73 million in royalties from Hasbro Inc. in arbitration. According to Hasbro, the Super Soaker is approaching sales of $1 billion.
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