During the next few weeks, the Minden Press-Herald will be honoring Black History Month by spotlighting black historical figures who have impacted countless lives throughout the years.
Lonnie Johnson is an engineer/inventor with many accomplishments under his belt, and has put his talents to use for organizations such as NASA and the United States Airforce. While these accomplishments are impressive enough on their own, one invention of his that most everyone is sure to remember is that of the popular summertime toy, the “Super Soaker.”
While he was definitely kept busy with his career, Johnson would still work on his own creations when he had the time to spare. One night, he had finally completed the prototype for what was going to be a heat pump that used water instead of freon and went to his bathroom to give it a test run.
“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, was pure delight,” read Johnson’s biography from biography.com.
“It topped $200 million in sales in 1991, and went on to annually rank among the world’s Top 20 best-selling toys.”
Johnson had been a tinkerer from a young age. His father, who was a technician, taught him various things about the craft. His enthusiasm got to the point where he even made a go-kart with an old lawn-mower motor and pieces he found in the scrap yard.
His desire to create would continue to grow, and later during high school, he was the only black student to enter a science fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society with a robot made from junkyard scraps named “ the Linex.”
This competition was held at the University of Alabama, where five years prior “Governor George Wallace had tried to prevent two black students from enrolling at the school by standing in the doorway of the auditorium,” according to his biography.
Even with this being the case, Johnson won first prize. “‘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,’” he said in the biography.
After the success of the Super Soaker, Johnson went on to found Johnson Research & Development, where he is still President to this day.
It is here where he began to work on a project called Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter, which aimed to convert heat energy to electricity with twice the efficiency of existing methods.
According to his biography, “Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation summed 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.’”