Lonnie George Johnson (1949-) is an inventor, engineer, and scientist from Mobile, Mobile County. Johnson had a distinguished engineering career with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Air Force before devoting himself full-time to inventing. Johnson holds more than 100 patents but is perhaps best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun. His current research is focused on alternative energy systems, including technology to increase the efficiency of fuel cells.
Johnson was born in Mobile on October 6, 1949, as the third of six children of David and Arline Johnson. His father was a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at Brookley Field, the local Air Force base, and his mother worked in a laundry and as a nurse's assistant. Johnson's father taught him practical repair and mechanical skills from a young age. As a result, Johnson developed an interest in mechanical devices and dreamed of being an inventor. He built model rockets and a go-kart from spare parts during his childhood. An African American, Johnson attended segregated L. B. Williamson High School in Mobile, where he was known as "the Professor." Although a poor score on an aptitude test initially discouraged him from pursuing an engineering career, Johnson persevered in his studies and became the first student from Williamson to participate in the Junior Engineering Technical Society's regional engineering fair, in which he won first place for a four-foot tall, remote controlled robot that was built with household electronics and powered by compressed air. After high school, he studied engineering at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Macon County, on math and Air Force ROTC scholarships. He received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master's degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. (Tuskegee awarded him an honorary PhD in science in 2001 recognition of his career achievements.)
After graduating from Tuskegee, Johnson worked as a research engineer for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He joined the U.S. Air Force and served at its weapons laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, until 1979. He then served at the Air Force's Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Nebraska, and Edwards Air Force Base in California, from 1982 to 1985. While with the Air Force, Johnson rose to the rank of captain and received numerous commendations for his work as a nuclear systems engineer and project manager. Johnson worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, beginning in 1979. During his various stints at JPL, he participated in development projects for several unmanned space missions, including the Mars Observer, the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, and the Galileo mission to Jupiter. He received multiple awards from NASA for his contributions to the successful completion of these missions.
Despite these achievements in space exploration and nuclear engineering, Johnson still hoped to become an independent inventor. While working on a design for a heat pump in 1982, Johnson discovered that his prototype could blast water at high pressure from its nozzle and decided to adapt the apparatus as a water toy. Originally calling it the "Power Drencher," Johnson worked to refine the squirt-gun design for seven years, acquiring numerous patents along the way. He eventually licensed production rights to the Larami Corporation (later acquired by Hasbro for its Nerf line of toys) in 1989. That same year, he formed his own engineering firm, Johnson Research and Development Company, Inc, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. The Super Soaker was a major hit and has generated close to a billion dollars in retail sales since its introduction. The royalty income from this success made Johnson a wealthy man. He used this wealth to diversify the research interests of his company to include other consumer products and advanced technology. Johnson R&D is responsible for developing NERF foam dart guns for Hasbro and a line of air-powered model rockets for Estes.
In addition to consumer products, Johnson has devoted considerable time and resources to developing alternative energy technologies. He has founded several spin-off companies pursuing advanced research projects in the area of energy technology. Johnson Battery Technology and the Excellatron Corporation pursue research in battery and energy storage technology, including the development of a high-density ceramic battery. Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems is responsible for developing one of Johnson's most promising inventions, the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter (JTEC). It aims to increase the efficiency of thermodynamic fuel cells by converting heat to electrical energy without the use of moving parts or creating waste products. The JTEC was named one of the Top 10 New Inventions of 2008 by Popular Mechanics. This device is currently still under development, but Johnson hopes that it can increase the efficiency of solar panels and other energy devices.
Johnson has received numerous accolades for his achievements. He was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011 and is a member of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, a mentoring organization for African American youth. Johnson lives in Atlanta with his wife, Linda Moore, with whom he has four children.