Inventor, engineer. Lonnie Johnson was born October 6, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at nearby Air Force bases, while his mother worked in a laundry and as a nurse’s aid. During the summers, both of Johnson’s parents also picked cotton on his grandfather’s farm. Out of both interest and economic necessity, Johnson’s father was a skilled handyman who taught his children to build their 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-cart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over.
Johnson dreamed of becoming a famous inventor, and during his teenage years he grew more curious about the way things worked and more ambitious in his experimentation—sometimes to the detriment of his family. “Lonnie tore up his sister’s baby doll to see what made the eyes close,” his mother later recalled. Another time, he nearly burned the house down when he attempted to cook up rocket fuel in one of his mother’s saucepans and the concoction exploded.
Johnson, who is African-American, grew up in the Deep South in the days of legal segregation and pervasive racism. He attended Williamson High School, an all-black school where, despite his precocious intelligence and creativity, he was told not to aspire beyond a career as a technician. Nevertheless, inspired by the story of the great black inventor George Washington Carver, Johnson persevered in his dream of becoming an inventor. Nicknamed “The Professor” by his high school buddies, as a senior Johnson represented his school at the 1968 Alabama State Science Fair. The fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where just five years earlier, in 1963, Governor George Wallace had literally tried to bar two black students from enrolling in the school by standing in the doorway of the auditorium. Johnson was the only black student in the competition. His entry was a compressed-air-powered robot called “the Linex” that he had painstakingly built from junkyard scraps over the course of a year. He won first prize—as well as a reward of $250 and a handsome plaque—much to the chagrin of the university officials. “The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition,” Johnson later recalled, “was ‘Goodbye, and y’all drive safe, now.'”
A year later, in 1969, Johnson graduated from Williamson High School as a member of its last segregated class. He earned a scholarship to Tuskegee University—where his idol George Washington Carver had once taught—and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975.
Upon the completion of his master’s, Johnson joined the Air Force and gradually established himself as an important member of the government scientific establishment. Johnson was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. His other assignments included analyzing plutonium fuel spheres at the Savannah River National Laboratory and working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Even while working for the Air Force, Johnson continued to pursue his own inventions in his spare time. One of his longtime pet projects was an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon. Johnson finally completed a prototype one night in 1982 and decided to test it in his bathroom. He aimed the nozzle into his bathtub, pulled the lever and blasted a powerful stream of water straight into the tub. Johnson’s instantaneous and instinctive reaction, since shared by millions of kids around the world: That was awesome. In 1989, after another seven years of tinkering and tireless sales-pitching, during which he quit the Air Force to go into business for himself, Johnson finally sold his device, renamed the Super Soaker, to the Larami Corporation, which put it into mass production. The Super Soaker, vastly superior to previous generations of squirt guns, quickly became one of the most popular toys in the world and has held its ranking among the world’s top 20 bestselling toys every year since its creation.
Propelled by the success of the Super Soaker, Johnson founded his own company, Johnson Research & Development, since acquiring over 100 patents. Some of his inventions, such as a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat, have achieved commercial success. Others, like a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled, failed to catch on.
Johnson’s most recent project is his most ambitious and important yet. The Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC) is an advanced heat engine that would convert solar energy into electricity with twice the efficiency of current methods and without any moving parts. While it remains only a prototype, the JTEC has the potential to make solar power competitive with coal, at long last fulfilling the dream of efficient, renewable solar energy. Johnson hopes to have the JTEC operable within the next several years.
Johnson and his wife Linda Moore have four children and live in the Ansley Park neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia.
Since leaving the Air Force, Lonnie 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. Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation sums up the immense importance of Johnson’s work: “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 darn good chance of being the best thing on Earth.”