Lonnie Johnson isn’t sure how or why he got interested in science. He just knows it’s been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
From the time he was a youngster in Mobile, Alabama, Johnson would take toys apart just to see what was inside. He also had a fascination with building things, which has culminated in him being the founder and owner of Atlanta-based Johnson Research and Development Co., a technology development company, along with spinoff companies Excellatron Solid State LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems.
He also is the owner of more than 100 patents, with more than 20 others pending. His most famous invention was that of the SuperSoaker water gun nearly 30 years ago. Johnson, 68, will be a guest speaker in Cullowhee on Monday, Feb. 19, as Western Carolina University celebrates Engineers Week. His presentation will begin at 6 p.m. in the A.K. Hinds University Center’s Grandroom.
“I met Lonnie through FIRST Robotics in Georgia,” said Jeff Ray, dean of WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology. “He is a fantastic inspiration to many budding young engineers. While he is known as the inventor of the SuperSoaker, his contributions to scientific and engineering breakthroughs have and continue to impress.”
As a child, Johnson said he played with construction toys like Erector sets and Tinker Toys. He would also make things out of discarded items, like taking empty spools from his mother’s sewing machine and using them as wheels to make cars. From there he began small projects like building go-carts.
Looking for something more challenging, Johnson represented all-African-American Williamson High School in the 1968 Alabama science fair. As the only African-American participant, Johnson entered a robot he built named Linex, which won first place.
“I remember thinking, it’s going to take a really long time to build this, but it’s going to be awesome when I get it done,” Johnson said. “He was fully remote controlled. I had a transmitter and a receiver so I could transmit signals and command him. He could swivel on his base and he had wheels so he could move around. He had arms that had all of the joints that a human arm had and he had little grabbers so he could pick up stuff.
“In reality, just making him work at all and having all those things move was a huge victory in itself. The wheels and swiveling on his base used electric motors, but his arms used compressed air cylinders to move the joints.”
Johnson received a math scholarship to Tuskegee University, but it didn’t take him long to realize he was destined to be an engineer. After a semester, he changed his major to mechanical engineering. Johnson received his bachelor’s and master’s in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee.
After graduating, Johnson joined the Air Force and worked on the stealth bomber program. He later worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab with the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter.
After returning to the Air Force in 1982, Johnson was working on a longtime personal project, an environmentally friendly heat pump that would use water instead of Freon. While experimenting with different nozzles, he noticed a high-pressure stream coming out of the nozzles, and immediately a light went off.
“I thought a high-pressure water gun would really be neat, so I stopped working on the heat pump and started designing a high-performance water gun,” Johnson said.
He received a patent for the gun in 1986. He eventually sold the gun, initially called the “Power Drencher,” to Larami Corporation in 1989. It wasn’t until some additional tinkering and a name change to “SuperSoaker” that it became a hit. The SuperSoaker topped $200 million in sales in 1991.
Now under Hasbro, which purchased Larami, the SuperSoaker sales have nearly reached $1 billion and it is annually ranked among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys.
“I did not envision it to be a huge success that it was,” Johnson said. “When I did that, my idea was to generate enough income that I could support myself while I went off to be a serious inventor.”
After SuperSoaker’s success, Johnson wondered if “lightning could strike in the same place twice.” So he tinkered with the “Nerf gun,” which was already on the market. After improving that toy’s performance, Johnson signed a contract with Hasbro and became the king of all toy guns. “That gave me a lot of confidence,” Johnson said.
His company Johnson Battery Technologies Inc. is introducing a new generation of rechargeable battery technology that has the potential to revolutionize the battery industry. By providing a source of energy much greater than what exists today in a substantially reduced size, this technology will solve many of the problems related to technology mobility in the future.
Excellatron has developed a thermodynamic energy conversion technology that converts to electrical energy with significant advantages over alternative systems.
Johnson also is on the board of directors for Georgia FIRST robotics. Students from across Atlanta come to his facilities and form teams that build robots for robotic competitions.
In addition to the College of Engineering and Technology, Johnson’s appearance at WCU is sponsored by the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, Intercultural Affairs, the Office of Student Success, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Education and Allied Professions.
Engineers Week began in 1951, but this is the first year WCU is celebrating the week, Ray said.
“As the newest public engineering program in the state of North Carolina, it is important to establish traditions recognizing the importance the engineering profession plays in protecting the welfare and safety of the public,” Ray said. “WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology is excited and proud to celebrate Engineers Week with our students.”
Other events for Engineers Week include:
Tuesday, Feb. 20: Eaton Corporation in Asheville will host an open house and plant tour for engineering and engineering technology students.
Wednesday, Feb. 21: Dedication and grand opening of the new Engineering MakerCAT Space at 11:30 a.m. in Belk 364. This is WCU’s newest lab dedicated to additive manufacturing and design prototyping for undergraduate engineering and engineering technology students. It features a bank of 3D printers, Arduino and other electronic components, and collaboration spaces.