Lonnie Johnson (inventor)

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Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson, Office of Naval Research (crop).jpg
Johnson in 2016
Born (1949-10-06) October 6, 1949 (age 72)[1]
Alma materTuskegee University (BS, MS)
OccupationInventor, Engineer
Years active1978–Present
Known forSuper Soaker, Nerf gun
Spouse(s)Linda Moore

Lonnie George Johnson (born October 6, 1949) is an American inventor, aerospace engineer, and entrepreneur, whose work includes a U.S. Air Force-term of service and a twelve-year stint at NASA, where he worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He invented the Super Soaker water gun in 1989, which has been among the world's bestselling toys ever since.[2] He also invented the Nerf Gun when he patented "a pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile"[3] which revolutionised toy blasters.

Early life[edit]

Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama.[4] His mother, who finished high school, worked as a nurse's aide and his father, who didn't finish high school, was a World War II veteran. He explained the basic principles of electricity to Johnson at an early age.[5] Stating that he "always liked to tinker with things," Johnson earned the nickname "the Professor" from kids in the neighborhood.[5] He once tore up his sister's doll to see what made the eyes close.[6] He also tried to cook up rocket fuel in a sauce pan but in doing so almost burned down the house.[6]

As a teenager, Johnson attended Williamson High School, an all-black school in Mobile.[7] He drew much of his inspiration from George Washington Carver.[8] In 1968, Johnson represented his high school at a science fair in Alabama, where he was the only black student attending the fair; This was a time when African Americans had very little presence in science.[5] There, he presented a robot he created, which he named "Linex," taking home the first-place prize. The robot was powered by compressed air.[5]

In 1969, shortly after graduating from high school, Johnson attended Tuskegee University, obtaining a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master's degree in nuclear engineering in 1975.[2][9] He also holds an honorary Ph. D. in Science from Tuskegee University.[10] He then worked for the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber program, before eventually joining NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979.[4]


During his time at NASA (1979-1991), Johnson worked on a variety of projects, including the Air Force missions Lab, developing the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter,[11] several weapons-related projects, as well as an engineer on the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for the Comet Rendezvous and Saturn Orbiter Probe missions.[12] He also worked on the stealth bomber program.[13]

In 1991, Johnson founded his own company, Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., of which he is also the president.[12]

More recently, he teamed up with scientists from both Tulane University and Tuskegee University to develop a method of transforming heat into electricity to make green energy more affordable.[11]

As of 2017, Johnson has two technology-development companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS), operating in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia.[14][15] JEMS has developed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC) which Popular Mechanics listed as one of the top 10 inventions of 2009.[16]

Lonnie Johnson with US Representative Bradley Byrne in 2018.

Johnson is a "part of a small group of African-American inventors whose work accounts for 6 percent of all U.S. patent applications."[17]

Super Soaker[edit]

Johnson first conceived the Super Soaker while doing work with the U.S. Air Force. Initially called the “Power Drencher” when it first appeared in toy shops in 1990, it eventually got its trademark name after some tweaks and remarketing.[16] Selling between $10 to $60 depending on the model, the Super Soaker took off, generating $200 million in sales in 1991.[2] Shortly after making the deal for the Super Soaker with the Larami Corporation, Larami became a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc. in February 1995.[18]

Johnson tweaked the design of the water gun, replacing the water in the Super Soaker with a "toy [Nerf] projectile." In 1996, Johnson received A U.S. Patent 5553598 A[3] for "Pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like", thus inventing the modern Nerf gun.

In February 2013, Johnson filed suit against Hasbro after he discovered that he was being underpaid royalties for the Super Soaker and several Nerf line of toys.[19] In November 2013, Johnson was awarded nearly $73 million in royalties from Hasbro Inc. in arbitration. According to Hasbro, the Super Soaker is approaching sales of $1 billion.[20]


Johnson holds more than 250 patents, most of which are for his Super Soaker. Johnson was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal. He received several awards from NASA for his work in spacecraft system design at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.[10] In 2008, he was awarded the Breakthrough Award from science magazine Popular Mechanics for his work related to JTEC and was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame in 2011.[8][21] In 2015, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Personal life[edit]

Johnson is married to Linda Moore, they have four children, and live in the Ansley Park district of Atlanta, Georgia.[2]


  1. ^ Broad, William J. Engineer At Play: Lonnie Johnson -Rocket Scientist, Served Up Soggy, July 31, 2001, The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b c d "Lonnie George Johnson". Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. 2014. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Lonnie G.; Applewhite, John T. (Sep 10, 1996), Pneumatic launcher for a toy projectile and the like, retrieved 2016-10-10
  4. ^ a b "Lonnie G. Johnson | African American Inventors | Scholastic.com". teacher.scholastic.com. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
  5. ^ a b c d "The father of the Super Soaker". BBC News. 2016-08-15. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
  6. ^ a b "Lonnie Johnson". Biography. Retrieved 2021-02-10.
  7. ^ Ward, Logan (November 2010). "Shooting for the Sun". The Atlantic. Retrieved July 25, 2014.
  8. ^ a b "BHM Highlight: Lonnie G Johnson, Air Force engineer and inventor of the Super Soaker". Liberty Science Center. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
  9. ^ "Inventor, alumnus Lonnie Johnson '73 returns to Tuskegee for Feb. 23 public lecture | Tuskegee University". www.tuskegee.edu. Retrieved 2020-02-11.
  10. ^ a b "Award Honoree". Trumpet Awards. Retrieved 2020-06-04.
  11. ^ a b Pagan, Kennedy (August 2, 2013). "Who Made That Super Soaker?". The New York Times. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  12. ^ a b "Lonnie G. Johnson 1949–". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved April 4, 2016.
  13. ^ "Summer Inventions: A NASA Engineer Created the Super Soaker?!". Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. 2014-07-21. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
  14. ^ Wheeler, Candace (July 16, 2015). "Super Soaker Inventor Now Engineers Batteries At Atlanta Lab". WABE. Retrieved July 31, 2015.
  15. ^ "Excellatron – the Company". www.excellatron.com. Retrieved 2017-02-17.
  16. ^ a b Kremer, William (August 16, 2016). "Lonnie Johnson: The father of the Super Soaker". BBC News. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  17. ^ Karlin, S. (2002-07-01). "From squirts to hertz [Lonnie Johnson, inventor]". IEEE Spectrum. 39 (7): 46–48. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.2002.1015464. ISSN 0018-9235.
  18. ^ "Larami Super Soakers Is Whetting Hasbro Inc.'s Appetite This Is The Third Time The Toy Maker Has Been Sold". philly-archives. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  19. ^ Seward, Christopher. "Super Soaker creator awarded $72.9M from Hasbro". ajc. Retrieved 2016-10-10.
  20. ^ "Super Soaker". National Toy Hall of Fame.
  21. ^ Tribune, Atlanta (2017-12-05). "2017 Hall of Fame Inductee: Dr. Lonnie Johnson". Atlanta Tribune. Retrieved 2020-02-11.

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