February 11, 2019
The National Society of Black Physicists honors Lonnie Johnson. Mr. Johnson is an engineer and inventor and the creator of the Super Soaker water gun.
Lonnie George Johnson (born October 6, 1949) is an American inventor and engineer who holds more than 120 patents. He is the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun, which has been among the world's bestselling toys every year since its release. Johnson is a "part of a small group of African-American inventors whose work accounts for 6 percent of all U.S. patent applications."
Johnson's father was a World War II veteran and his mother worked as a nurse's aide and they lived in Mobile, Alabama. As a child, Johnson was very innovative and curious, some of this curiosity coming at the expense of his family's possessions. He reversed engineered his sister's doll to understand how the eyes closed. He also almost burned down his own house while making rocket fuel. In addition, he built his own go-cart out of a lawnmower engine and attached to scraps he found in the junkyard to it. In his teenage years, Johnson attended the all-black Williamson High School in Mobile. He drew much of his inspiration from George Washington Carver. In 1968, Johnson represented his high school in the Alabama science fair. He was the only black student in the fair at a time when African Americans did not have much presence in science. He created a robot he named "Linex", which was a compressed-air powered robot and took home first prize. Johnson then went on to attend college at Tuskegee University on a math scholarship. When he finished, he earned a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and an Master's Degree in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University.
After college, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber program. Later, he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab with the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. More recently, he teamed up with scientists from Tulane University and Tuskegee University to develop a method of transforming heat into electricity with the goal of making green energy more affordable.
Johnson conceived the Super Soaker while doing work with the US Air Force. On May 27, 1986 he received patent number 4,591,071, for which he named the “Power Drencher” when it appeared in toy shops in 1990, but after some tweaks and remarketing, it got its name. 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. But being an inventor, Johnson came up with another idea: replacing the water in the Super Soaker with a "toy [Nerf] projectile." In 1996, Johnson received patent US5553598 A for "Pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like."
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.
Johnson currently has two technology-development companies: Excellatron Solid State, LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS). They both currently operate in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta. Excellatron Solid State, LLC is a U.S. -based technology company that focuses on the development and production of solid state batteries, particularly thin film batteries. Its mission is stated as “…to develop revolutionary energy storage technology as well as the manufacturing technology required for its cost effective commercialization.” The company’s batteries boost safety, high temperature capability, long cycle life, thin flexible profiles, unique proprietary passivation barrier and packaging solution, and high rate capability. The company is targeting military applications and implantable medical devices as initial consumers. JEMS has developed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC), listed by Popular Mechanics as one of the top 10 inventions of 2009. This system has potential applications in solar power plants and ocean thermal power generation. It converts thermal energy to electrical energy using a non-steam process which works by pushing hydrogen ions through two membranes, with claimed advantages over alternative systems.