An Inventive Mind

Lonnie Johnson was born in Alabama in 1949. His father had not completed high school but was a skilled handyman who taught Lonnie and five siblings to create their own toys. This was the start of Lonnie’s lifetime of tinkering.

Lonnie went to a segregated high school and in spite of his intelligence and curious mind was told to peruse a career as a technician. Lonnie had other thoughts and was inspired by the life of George Washington Carver to become an inventor.

Lonnie first became known when he represented his high school at a science fair at the University of Alabama. He was the only African American in the competition. His robot, powered by compressed air, was built from junkyard scraps. He won the science fair to the embarrassment of the officials at the science fair.

After graduating from high school, Lonnie earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and a master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University. After graduation from college, Lonnie joined the U.S. Air Force where he was a member of the team developing the Stealth Bomber. He then moved to NASA where he was involved in a number of projects exploring our universe.

Johnson went on to develop Johnson Research and Development Co. His Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter (JTEC) System was identified as one of the top 10 inventions in 2009 by Popular Mechanics. JTEC is considered a breakthrough technology at the vanguard of the green technology revolution.

Perhaps the invention that Lonnie is best known for is the Super Soaker. This invention took him back to his childhood. While working on the Stealth Bomber by day, he worked on the prototype of the Super Soaker at night. Once a prototype proved successful, he needed a production partner. With a production partner, the Super Soaker was an instant success with 2 million units sold in its first year. It has now become one of the all-time best selling toys.

Lonnie holds more than 250 patents and has received prestigious awards from the Air Force and NASA. He continues to be professionally active as an inventor and as an inspiration for minority representation in technology leadership. Lonnie has commented: “We can’t maintain technology leadership in the world when we’re having large segments of our population on the sidelines. We need all hands on deck. That’s something I emphasize to people every opportunity I get.”

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“This is a whole new family of technology… It’s like discovering a new continent. You don’t know what’s there, but you sure want to explore it to find out… It has a good chance of being the best thing on Earth.” – Paul Werbos (National Science Foundation speaking of the JTEC concept)

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