Lonnie G. Johnson is an African American engineer and inventor, born in Alabama in 1949. He earned a master’s degree from Tuskegee University in nuclear engineering before going on to work for the US Air Force and NASA’s space programme. Whilst experimenting with the notion of a high-powered water gun, Johnson invented the Super Soaker, which became a top-selling toy in the 1990s. His work since then has brought him to develop the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC). It is an engine that converts heat into electricity, which Johnson hopes could be a pathway towards low-cost solar power.
Lonnie Johnson was born 6th October 1949. His father was a WWII veteran working as a civilian driver at Air Force bases in Alabama, while his mother worked as a nurse’s aid, and in a laundry. In the summertime, both of Johnson’s parents picked cotton on his grandfather’s farm. Johnson’s father was good with his hands, and he taught his children to build their own toys, and Johnson built some impressive gadgets of his own as a child. His dream was to become a famous inventor, and his curiosity about the way things worked grew through his teens.
Growing up in the days of legal segregation, Johnson was educated at an all-black school and rarely encouraged to have aspirations or ambitions, despite his intelligence and creativity. Nevertheless, he maintained his dream of becoming an inventor, and managed to gain entry to Tuskegee University by way of a scholarship. There he earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, before completing his master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the same college. He works to encourage young children of colour to aspire towards greatness and develop their talents.
The Super Soaker
During his time with the US Air Force, Johnson helped develop the stealth bomber programme before moving on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in 1979. Despite being busy with his career, Johnson pursued his inventions in his own time. He had been working on an environmentally friendly heat pump using water rather than Freon, and when he tried his first prototype he found it blasted a delightfully powerful stream of water.
After years of tinkering and sales efforts, the resulting ‘Power Drencher’ of 1989 failed to make a significant impact, but with the rename to ‘Super Soaker’ it became a runaway success. Its sales in 1991 topped $200 million, and it ranked in the world’s top 20 best-selling toys.
The Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter
With his newfound success, Johnson founded Johnson Research & Development, acquiring dozens of patents in the years that followed. He has succeeded with inventions like a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without the need for heat, while his diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled didn’t really catch on. But the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter (JTEC) attempts to address more important issues, aiming to develop a significantly more efficient method of converting solar energy into electricity.
He obtained funding from the Air Force and received the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics in 2008 for the JTEC. He continues to work on developing the project and has truly established himself as an independent inventor who works outside the scientific establishment. Even if he had retired after the success of the Super Soaker, he would have been one of his generation’s most successful entrepreneurs. But, if he manages to perfect the JTEC, he will go down as a seminal figure in the green technology revolution.