Diversity Dialogues - Lonnie Johnson

By Marilyn Mays posted 02-22-2021 15:20:35


Lonnie Johnson, NASA Engineer, and Toy Inventor
By Marilyn Mays, Ph.D.

Lonnie Johnson talking about global energy and environmental challenges as part of the Office of Naval Research's 70th Anniversary Edition Distinguished Lecture Series in February 2016. US Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

If you are a fan of video or board games with sophisticated logic, then you probably realize that many games are developed using mathematical axioms and theorems as well as principals from physics. But how about toys? Have you heard of one that was developed by a mathematician as a byproduct of his employment?

Did you ever have the fun of drenching some of the neighborhood kids with a Super-Soaker? Or maybe some of your fellow college students on spring break? This high power “water gun” was the brain-child of Lonnie Johnson, a NASA engineer who had managed to excel in engineering and physics in spite of growing up in Mobile, Alabama’s segregated educational system. Lonnie Johnson is an African American.

He was fortunate to have very supportive parents who encouraged his interest in science and experimentation with physics and mechanics. When he came close to burning his house down with one of his experiments, they were very understanding but told him, in the future, to take those experiments outside.

His father fostered his son’s avid curiosity and taught him a lot about how electric circuits work. Johnson found friends who were interested in experimenting in mechanics, and together they built engines for go-karts out of scrap parts. This led Johnson to an interest in robotics which he studied pretty much on his own. By high school, Johnson had built his own robot, Linex.

Johnson attended a segregated high school, but he was allowed to enter his robot into the University of Alabama’s science fair. He was the only Black entrant. His robot, Linex, was so impressive that it earned Johnson first place. Despite this major accomplishment, no one from the University of Alabama showed interest in the academic future of this brilliant young scientist.

Instead, Johnson attended the famed Tuskegee University on an ROTC scholarship and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. He started his career in the Air Force. In 1979, just four years after Johnson had completed his schooling at Tuskegee, he was recruited by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At NASA, Johnson was part of the Galileo mission, which sent an uncrewed craft to study Jupiter. He worked on several weapons-related projects, including the stealth bomber program. He was an engineer on the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for the Comet Rendezvous and Saturn Orbiter Probe missions. 

Johnson’s main claim to fame, however, is as the inventor of the Super Soaker, referenced above in this biography. One evening, while exploring ideas for a new refrigeration system for spacecraft that used water instead of the environmentally hazardous freon, he hooked a nozzle up to his bathroom sink. He accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom and thought, “This would make a great gun.”

To get the water gun manufactured, Johnson partnered first with a company called Larami and later with Hasbro Toys. The gun was an immediate success and has brought Johnson millions of dollars and allowed him to found two of his own research and development companies. One of the more recent projects, carried out with Tulane University and Tuskegee University, has been to develop a method of transforming heat into electricity to make green energy more affordable.

Lonnie Johnson firing a Super Soaker, June 1992

Photo: Thomas S. England/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images


Johnson holds more than 250 patents; he 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. In 2015, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Now he runs his own lab and is helping mentor a new generation of scientists, with a special focus on young people of color. “When you look at large corporations, the minority representation is only 10 percent or so, but minorities are 30 percent of the population — soon to be 40 percent,” he said in 2017. “We can’t maintain technology leadership in the world when we’re leaving large segments of our population on the sidelines.”

 Jordan Zakarin, New York-based writer and editor

 Award Honoree, Trumpet Awards.

 Pagan, Kennedy (August 2, 2013). "Who Made That Super Soaker?". The New York Times

 "Lonnie G. Johnson 1949–".