Lonnie G. Johnson

Famous Inventor

Inducted in 2011

Lonnie G. Johnson has a lifetime of achievement and success, but he is best known for his invention and contribution to fun, the Super Soaker water gun, which has generated over $1 billion in sales since 1990. Johnson conceived of a water gun powered by air pressure while conducting an experiment at home on a heat pump using water instead of Freon.

Johnson’s inventing skills were apparent even as a boy. He learned from his father how to repair various household items, prompting him to create his own toys. During 1968, his senior year in high school, Johnson created a remote-controlled robot, Linex, which earned him first place in a science competition sponsored by The University of Alabama. He attended Tuskegee University and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 followed by a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975, and later an honorary doctorate.

After graduation, Johnson entered the U.S. Air Force, serving as acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, where he analyzed the NASA space system that employed nuclear power sources. In 1979, he left the Air Force to accept a position at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., as a member of the system-design team for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and its 16 moons. Johnson was responsible for the nuclear-power-system design and invented memory-keep-alive subassembly for the Galileo spacecraft. He returned to the Air Force in 1982 and was assigned to Strategic Air Command in Omaha, Neb., followed by a stint on the Stealth Bomber Program at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Over the course of his Air Force career, Johnson received numerous honors, including two Commendation Medals and the Air Force Achievement Medal.

In 1987, Johnson returned to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on the Mars Observer Project and the Cassini mission to Saturn. During his career at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he received multiple achievement awards from NASA for his work in spacecraft system design. Meanwhile, after receiving the patent for his water-gun invention, he spent much of the 1980s seeking a company to manufacture and market his toy. In 1989, he and Larami Corp. partnered, and, later that year, the Super Soaker was unveiled to the public.

Johnson is currently president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Company Inc., a technology development company and its spinoff companies, Excellatron Solid State LLC and Johnson Electro Mechanical Systems LLC. The companies are developing revolutionary energy technology.

In 2008, Johnson received the Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics for his invention of the Johnson ThermoElectrochemical Converter System. Articles on his inventions have appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times, Inventor’s Digest and Popular Mechanics. He is listed in the Black Inventors Online Museum and is a member of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, an organization that mentors young people through high school and college. Johnson currently holds more than 100 patents with over 20 more pending and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.

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