To celebrate Black History Month, Engadget is running a series of profiles honoring African-American pioneers in the world of science and technology. Today we take a look at the life and work of Lonnie Johnson.
Lonnie Johnson is not quite a household name, but many of his famous creations, like the Super Soaker, are. To truly appreciate Johnson's achievements, we should start at the beginning. Ever since he was a child in Mobile, Alabama, he wanted to be a maker and a creator. In 1968, at Williamson High School, then an all-black school, Johnson designed a 4-foot tall, remote-controlled robot, which he worked on for over a year and built using scrap metal. He called it "Linex," and it won him the main prize at a science fair that year. Johnson recalls being the only minority student in the competition, which was hosted by the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa -- a place known for attempting to block black students from enrolling. "The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition was, 'Goodbye,' and, 'Y'all drive safe now,'" he told Biography.com in an interview. Eventually, Johnson earned the nickname "The Professor," a moniker that years later would seem ever so fitting.
After graduating from Williamson High School, Johnson attended Tuskegee University in his home state of Alabama, earning a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in nuclear engineering in 1973 and 1975, respectively. He then decided to follow in the footsteps of his father, a World War II veteran, and joined the US Air Force, where he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and worked on the development of the branch's stealth bomber program. In 1979, Johnson began his career at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There, he became involved with multiple ventures as a systems engineer, including the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer project. He was also part of the Cassini mission to Saturn, helping design the robot probe that traveled more than 900 million miles to our ringed neighbor.
Johnson never let the naysayers get the better of him. He was told not to aspire to anything beyond being a simple technician. But he clearly went on to be much, much more. He attributes his success in part to the great African-American inventor George Washington Carver, whose story of perseverance Johnson admired and used as motivation. It certainly paid off. Even while working for the Air Force and NASA, Johnson used whatever spare time he had to tinker with side projects of his own. It was this way that the idea for the now-famous Super Soaker came about.
The squirt gun, which was originally known as the "Power Drencher," was born after Johnson tried to create a water-based, eco-friendly heat pump that didn't require any Freon. After making some jet pumps for it, he said to Popular Mechanics, "I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, 'This would make a great gun.'" Johnson added that the first version of the gun had the pressurized water and air inside a Plexiglas body, but after ironing out a number of iterations, he then decided to put the bottle on the top -- a feature that would end up making its way to the retail version.
"I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, 'This would make a great gun.'"
The commercial version of the Super Soaker wasn't some accidental success, however; it was years in the making. Johnson was driven by faith in his invention to leave his job at the Air Force and NASA to start his own engineering company, Johnson Research and Development. Shortly after, the Atlanta-based company licensed its Super Soaker invention to Larami Corporation, the company that ultimately brought the toy to market in 1989. In an interview with The New York Times, Johnson recalled what it was like meeting with Larami Corporation to show them an early, working prototype of the Super Soaker, which he was carrying in a pink Samsonite suitcase.
It was a "classic situation" for an inventor, he said. "I had bought a milling machine and made all of the parts myself out of PVC pipe and Plexiglas." Still, what worried him most was that his idea would be underestimated because of who he was, noting that most of his career as an engineer he was placed in environments where he was the only person of color.
Naturally -- because what kid doesn't want to have a water gun? -- the Super Soaker took the world by storm and became an instant hit. More than 25 years since it initially hit the consumer market, it's estimated the Super Soaker has earned more than $1 billion in sales. Not long after the launch, Larami Corporation was purchased by Hasbro, which took the Super Soaker into a whole new world -- after all, Hasbro was, and still is, one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world. Unfortunately, the relationship between Hasbro and Johnson didn't play out smoothly; later on, both parties would get involved in a licensing battle that resulted in the Super Soaker inventor receiving a whopping $73 million in royalties.
While the Super Soaker is, without a doubt, Johnson's most recognizable badge of honor, it's definitely not his only one. Along with the popular toy, he's also responsible for inventing memory-protected circuitry for the Galileo mission, which he says is right up there with the Super Soaker when it comes to his favorite creations. Most recently, Johnson invented the aptly named Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, an enhanced heating system that can efficiently turn solar energy into electricity. In other words, Johnson, who currently holds over 80 patents (plus 20 more that are pending), still has a major passion for inventing -- nowadays he's less about toys, though, and more about finding ways to make the world more efficient.
[Image credits: Associated Press, tedxatlanta/Flickr, Atlanta Journal Constitution]