Lonnie Johnson is a geek who knows how to have fun: a literal rocket scientist, and the mastermind behind the legendary Super Soaker water gun. Inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur, his career spans his US Air Force service and twelve-year stint at NASA, including at the famed Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on stealth bombers. Along the way he’s racked up over 250 patents and landed a spot in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
As an African American growing up in Mobile, Alabama during the segregationist 1950s and early 60s, the odds were stacked against him. “That was the heart of the civil rights movement,” he recalls. “America was fortunate that Martin Luther King came on the scene because at that point, black people were really angry. There were riots all over the country. Fires, burning, looting, and destruction. They had had enough.”
But MLK brought a non-violent movement to the cultural war, and there was also a solidarity that forged an inner strength among Johnson and others at that time. In his high school, “all of our teachers were black. They really cared about us and were committed to preparing us for challenges that we would face as we grew up.” His father also gave him a solid grounding in how things worked. We were always “installing a new appliance, a bathtub, repairing lamps and things like that … he gave me my first lesson in electrical circuits.”
Johnson earned the nickname “The Professor” at school and in the neighborhood. President of his high school’s Junior Engineer Technical Society, Johnson built a robot called Linex (“about three feet tall and remote controlled using mechanical decoders”). He was the only black contestant at the University of Alabama competition – and won first prize. “That was a huge moral victory for me personally,” he says, “And of course, building the robot and achieving that success had a significant impact on my self-esteem and my impression of what I could do.”
That victory set the stage for a lifetime of imaginative, playful creations.
Johnson attended Tuskegee University on a math scholarship. Ever the inventor, he designed a lighting system for Lionel Richie and The Commodores when they came to campus to perform. “It was hooked to the drums and responded to the sound, and everything was really cool.” The band ended up taking the system on tour with them.
Graduating with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering, “the Air Force made sense to me because it was the most technical.” While working at Oak Ridge National Lab as a nuclear engineer, he developed computer codes that could a simulate the performance of a nuclear reactor under certain conditions.
During his tenure at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson faced some of the discrimination his teachers had warned him about. A less skilled white colleague would “try to keep me in the dark about certain things because he was having trouble keeping up.” Co-workers who didn’t fully understand the technology would sometimes challenge him when he presented ideas, and storm out of the room in a huff. However, when a senior colleague stood up for him, giving him the nickname “Black Magic,” Johnson was redeemed.
Around this time, in 1982, a happy accident changed the course of his life. Johnson was leak-testing a heat pump, and decided to test his prototype using water instead of air. Johnson immediately thought, “That would make a great squirt gun.” So, he kept going. Using plexiglass, PVC pipe, and a plastic soda bottle for the reservoir, Johnson prototyped what would later become the Super Soaker. In the late 80s, he licensed his invention to Larami toys (later acquired by Hasbro) and by 1991, the toy had generated $200 million in sales.
That year, Johnson left his corporate career behind and founded Johnson Research and Development Co., where he continued to work on iterations of the gun. “Call it arrogance if you will, but when Super Soaker was successful, I decided I wanted to be two things. I wanted to be the King of All Toy Guns, and I also wanted to prove that it was not just luck,” he recalls wryly. “And I designed a whole line of guns: small ones, large ones, medium-sized, Nerf guns, a whole product line.”
Johnson proved “that lightning could strike in the same place more than once.” In 2015, he became the King of All Toy Guns, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015.
About this content: I wrote this story for Donna Loughlin’s Before It Happened podcast, where I craft profiles of innovators, and showcase their aha moments. This post originally appeared on the Before It Happened Blog. Be sure to listen to the related podcast!