By Leah S. McDaniel
All nineties-era victors who were aided by the high-powered water gun standard, the Super Soaker, have Dr. Lonnie G. Johnson to thank. Johnson’s lifelong love of tinkering led to this invention and several others — of 100-plus patents — that continue to power NERF toys.
Johnson hails from Mobile, Ala., and has maintained an interest in science and technology. “I was always building things or taking them apart,” Johnson recalls of his childhood and a 1968 win at the Southeast Regional Science Fair. For the win, Johnson created the robot “Linex” made of items he pieced together. It was a moral victory that pushed him to continue pursuing his passion.
However, it wasn’t until he met Dr. Francis LeVert, the first African-American Ph.D. recipient in nuclear engineering, while attending Tuskegee University that he was inspired to pursue the field. Despite being incredibly gifted, he struggled with classroom structure and jokes that his Ph.D. is honorary. “I just didn’t have the patience to sit in classrooms anymore, I wanted to learn and work on problems that had not already been solved.”
Johnson received much of that real-world experience during his tenure as an Air Force Officer and later worked with NASA on the Galileo project mission to Jupiter. It’s an achievement he doesn’t tire of discussing. “That project was kind of cool, not everyone gets to put an invention on a spacecraft that’s going to another planet.”
Following those efforts, Johnson had many avenues that he wanted to pursue, but often lacked investors. Enter the Super Soaker in 1989, which led to revenue to support his current and future endeavors, with close to $1 billion in retail sales. He currently works on advanced battery technologyas well as a groundbreaking advanced energy project through his subsidiary, Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems, LLC, which is poised to revolutionize the way we think about engines.“
Having an engine that converts heat into electricity, the way other engines convert heat into work is a significant accomplishment; the last engine that was invented was back in 1860.”Johnson is also dedicated to helping children gain more insight into STEM careers and encourages them not to be intimidated by math and science courses along the way. He sits on the Board of Directors of GeorgiaFIRST Robotics, an organization that engages youth in STEM using mentor-based programs. Another win: Georgia is now leading the country in minority and underserved students participating in robotics programs. “Perseverance is key, but be aware this is not magic. Physics and science are no different than learning a game of basketball, once you learn the rules you can play.” Through his own non-profit organization, Johnson STEM Activity Center, children learn about robotics and compete in local and world competitions. Through partnerships with groups like 100 Black Men of Atlanta and the Fernbank Science Center, Johnson has seen children from various backgrounds excel on a world stage.“
Under President Obama, one of our teams [comprised] of foster kids were invited to the White House after a very successful year.”
Back at the Atlanta headquarters, the focus is on creating jobs through his R&D programs.“ The site where we’re located in Atlanta was purchased years ago with the intention to create jobs and we’ve remained here entrenched in a very serious R&D program while the goal of having a positive economic impact remains intact.”When he’s not tinkering, Johnson enjoys butter pecan ice cream and time with his family which includes four children, the youngest of whom may be following in his footsteps.“
Her team recently won first place in a national math competition,” Johnson laughs. “She’s a chip off the old block.”