Lonnie Johnson might be one of the most brilliant inventors of our time.
The NASA scientist and engineer is the one responsible for over 100 patents, including a thermoelectric energy convertor and a thin-film lithium battery. And his most famous invention is one of the best toys of the 20th century, the Super Soaker.
The Super Soaker came to life all thanks to an accidental discovery.
“When I came up for the idea for the water gun, I was working on something else,” Johnson recalls. “I was working on a new idea for a heat pump that would use water as a working fluid instead of Freon.”
During that time, there was a concern about how the continuous use of Freon would impact the environment, so Johnson tried to figure out if he could develop a refrigeration system that used water instead.
“I was experimenting with some nozzles that I machined, and I shot a stream of water across the bathroom and I thought, ‘Geez, maybe I should put this hard science stuff aside and work on something fun like a water gun. Maybe I could get enough money to support my habit,” Johnson said.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to make a better toy, something I enjoyed playing with,” he recalls.
“From the time I got the idea for the Super Soaker, it took about seven years before I found a path to get it commercialized,” Johnson said. “Then, it was about 10 years from the time I got the idea to the time it became the No. 1 selling toy in the world. It’s a story of perseverance.”
“I developed a system where after you’ve finished shooting the gun, you could just stick it into a pool of water or a bucket and press a button and it would automatically suck the water in and you’re good to go again,” Johnson remembers.
“It was a quick refill, self-refilling water gun.That one really never made it to the market. ”
Today, Johnson is working to encourage students to pursue their interests in STEM. The scientist has partnered with 100 Black Men of Atlanta and FIRST Robotics to introduce more students to engineering and technology.
“One of the things I really relate to is people saw my interest in engineering very early and they nurtured that, they cultivated that,” he said.
“I think the earlier we can get kids interested and the more we can give positive feedback as opposed to criticism, the more likely we are to see kids grow up to be successful, I believe very strongly in that.”
The Super Soaker inventor is also continuing to play with new inventions with his team at Johnson Battery Technologies.
“Inventing is what I do,” Johnson says.
Johnson is currently working with NASA on a heat-to-electric energy convertor, as well as working on a lithium-air battery, which, if successful, he believes could have the capacity to hold 10 times the energy of a lithium-ion battery.
But still, he knows that people will forever remember him for his contributions to their childhood.
“I find it curious that people seem to make a big fuss about me and the Super Soaker and I’m still trying to get used to that,” Johnson says. “I come to work, I try to invent and develop new things to solve problems. There’s an expression that says, ‘Need is the mother of invention,’ so I look for really good problems to solve. That’s what I do.”