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Nuclear Engineer’s $1 Billion Toy

Lonnie Johnson addresses students in Mobile. 

Lonnie Johnson addresses students in Mobile. 

Photo by Mike Kittrell

High school students applaud on this January assembly of Mobile’s Alabama School of Math and Science. It is somewhat odd. Typically, technology innovators do not receive such accolades.

But others did not invent the Super Soaker water gun. Lonnie G. Johnson did.

Actually, the 68-year-old Mobile native invented many things, including mechanisms on the Galileo Mission to Jupiter, Cassini Project that orbited Saturn and jet propulsion systems for Mars.

“Having something you created visit another planet is pretty cool,” Johnson says.

Now living in Georgia and president of Johnson Research and Development Co., Johnson holds 60 patents with 20 pending, but the invention known worldwide is a water gun.

“Actually the Super Soaker was created while I was working on something else,” Johnson recalls. “I was at home developing a heat converter-pump using water instead of Freon. Experimenting with nozzles, I shot a stream of water across the bathroom and thought, ‘Wow, this would make a great water gun.’”

It did.

In 1989, Johnson formed his own engineering firm and licensed the water toy to Larami Corp. Two years later, the Super Soaker’s retail sales hit $200 million. To date, it ranks as one of the most popular toys ever made, with total sales now over $1 billion.

“I was always tinkering,” the inventor says. “I wanted to see how things worked or maybe create something new and improved.”

In 1968 the Williamson High School senior competed in a University of Alabama science fair. He was the only minority student. “I built a four-foot tall, remote-controlled robot from scrap metal, named ‘Linex,’ which was a big hit,” he says. Linex won the main prize.

Johnson earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University.

His resume includes research engineer at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section – U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory and senior systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In 1982, Johnson served as Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer at Strategic Air Command.

But today’s audience of young people are interested in the Super Soaker. “I never thought I would meet the guy who made it,” says ASMS senior Ian Bunker. “I’m interested in mechanical engineering and a military career, too.”

Senior Reese Toland was also impressed, noting, “He took an idea for a heat converter and turned it into a water gun. It funded his bigger goal.”

During his presentation, the inventor spoke of the need for engineers. “Robotics, computers, cleaner efficient fuels are coming, and you will see that it gets here,” he says.

Regarding his career, the Mobile inventor acknowledged success has been rewarding but with hard work and many setbacks. “You need perseverance. Do not rely on lucky breaks,” he told the assembly. “Lady Luck frowns as much as she smiles.”

And he advised the students to give their best in everything, be it nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence or the next cutting-edge water gun.

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