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It seems that Lonnie Johnson was born to be an engineer. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, he was a quiet and curious child who was fascinated about how things worked. “Lonnie tore up his sister’s baby doll to see what made the eyes close,” his mother recalls. As he grew older, he began making things, including rockets powered by fuel cooked up in his mother’s saucepans. In his senior year of high school he won a national inventing competition for "Linex," a remote-control robot he had built out of junkyard scraps. Always a kid at heart even as an engineer, it is no surprise that he would become a hero to millions of kids worldwide for his invention of a squirt gun.
Why He's Important: Lonnie Johnson's achievements on the "serious" side of engineering are indeed impressive: he's worked as a space systems officer for the Air Force, a space projects expert for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (where he conducted award-winning work for the Galileo Jupiter probe and the Mars Observer endeavors), holds more than 80 patents and was even nominated for astronaut training.
But it is for inventing the legendary high-powered squirt gun known as the Super Soaker® that he is most famous. He conceived the idea for the top-selling toy in 1982 while conducting an experiment at home on a heat pump that used water instead of Freon. The experiment inadvertently resulted in him shooting a stream of water across the bathroom into the bathtub. What a great idea for a squirt gun, he thought. The Super Soaker uses an air pump to pressurize its water supply, allowing for tremendous distance and accuracy in water-marksmanship. Manufactured by Larami Corp. (now a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc.), Super Soaker generated over $200 million in retail sales two years after it was introduced and became the top selling toy in America. The toy remains popular.
Current Activities: Today as owner of two energy technology companies -- Excellatron Solid State, and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS) -- Lonnie is working on endeavors bigger than squirt guns. At JEMS, for example, he has developed a thermo-electrochemical converter system (listed by Popular Mechanics as one of the top 10 inventions of 2009) that has promising potential for applications in solar power plants and ocean thermal power generation.
Education: Lonnie earned his B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering, and his M.S. in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University.
In His Own Words: Commenting on how he came to invent the Super Soaker, he says:"I was working on a heat pump that used water as a working fluid, and I made some jet pumps for it. [In the process] I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, 'this would make a great gun.'“ For more great stories about role models in science and engineering, visit: http://on.fb.me/g2Onfh