Inventor, alumnus Lonnie Johnson ‘73 returns to Tuskegee for Feb. 23 public lecture
You may not know Lonnie G. Johnson by name, but chances are if you have been soaked by a high-powered water gun in the past decade or two, you have Johnson to thank. Johnson, an African-American engineer, inventor and two-time Tuskegee University graduate, will share the passions and motivations behind his imaginative spirit during a public lecture on Friday, Feb. 23.
Johnson’s lecture is part of the university’s continuing Lyceum series and Black History Month programming. He will address students, employees and members of the community beginning at 11 a.m. in the University Chapel.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Johnson completed degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering at Tuskegee, then went on to work for the U.S. Air Force and NASA. After toying around with the idea of a high-powered water gun, Johnson’s “Super Soaker” became a top-selling item by the early 1990s. He has since been developing the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), an engine that converts heat directly into electricity, among other projects
“Lonnie Johnson is a pioneer with a clear vision about the ever-evolving technologies to better mankind — particularly those focused on harvesting affordable energy and producing sustainable energy for future generations,” said Dr. Heshmat Aglan, dean of Tuskegee’s College of Engineering. “His service to the scientific community, and Tuskegee University in particular, are invaluable. He gives freely of his time and resources, and we are forever grateful to have him as one of our most famous, engaged and philanthropic Tuskegee alumni.”
Johnson’s nature to tinker and invent — which today has led to more than 100 patents and 20-plus others pending — dates back to his youth working with his father to build his 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-kart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over.
Johnson’s inventive spirit — fueled by stories of famed Tuskegee inventor George Washington Carver — continued into this teenage years, sometimes to the detriment of his family.
“Lonnie tore up his sister’s baby doll to see what made the eyes close,” his mother once recalled, along with the time he nearly burned the house down when his attempt to cook up rocket fuel in one of her saucepans exploded.
Later nicknamed “The Professor” by his high school buddies, Johnson brought his inventive spirit to Tuskegee University in 1969, where — thanks to a scholarship — he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, and two years later he received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. After graduation, Johnson became an important member of the government scientific establishment. First a research engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he later joined the U.S. Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. After moving to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979, he worked as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn, before returning to the Air Force in 1982. He was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal on two different occasions. In 1987, he returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on the Mars Observer project and was the fault protection engineer during the early stages of the Cassini (Saturn) project.
Despite his monumental contributions to government aerospace research, Johnson reserved time to pursue his own inventive interests. One of his longtime pet projects was an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of the aerosol refrigerant Freon. It is the “Super Soaker” water gun, however, that landed him on the retail radar — at least in the eyes of water-gun-wielding children the world over. The first Super Soaker went on sale in 1990 after he sold the invention to the Larami Corporation. In its first three years of production, more than 27 million water guns were sold. To date, Larami Corporation, and then Hasbro, have sold about 200 million Super Soakers in more than 175 variations — netting about $1 billion in sales. Consistently ranked among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys, his Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015.
Propelled by the success of the Super Soaker, Johnson founded Atlanta-based Johnson Research & Development and went on to acquire dozens of patents. In addition to serving as the technology development company’s president and founder, he leads spin-off companies that include Excellatron Solid State LLC, Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems LLC, and Johnson Real Estate Investments LLC. Some of his inventions — including a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat — achieved commercial success. Others, including a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled, failed to catch on.
Other inventions seek to address matters of far greater environmental and economic importance. With the creation of the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC), Johnson aimed to develop an advanced heat engine that could convert solar energy into electricity with twice the efficiency of existing methods. He believed a successful version of the JTEC had the potential to make solar power competitive with coal, fulfilling the dream of efficient, renewable solar energy. After receiving much-needed funding from the Air Force to complete his work on the JTEC project, he received the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics in 2008. More recently, he has been working on further development of the JTEC with the Palo Alto Research Center in California.
Johnson, through Johnson Battery Technologies Inc., also is focusing on a new generation of rechargeable battery technology that has the potential to revolutionize the 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.
Since leaving the Air Force, 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.
“This is a whole new family of technology….It’s like discovering a new continent,” Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation said in summarizing the immense importance of Johnson’s work. “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.”
Outside of his professional interests, Johnson is board chairman of the Georgia Alliance for Children; a member of the Georgia FIRST and the Hank Aaron “Chasing the Dream” Foundation boards of directors; a trustee of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America; and a member of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, an organization that mentors high school and college students. In 2011, he was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame.