Excerpted from an article by Monica Cull in Discover Magazine 2/8/22. Read the full article here.
NASA engineer and inventor Lonnie Johnson is the father of some of our favorite toys, plus dozens of other patents. All of you ’90s kids who grew up playing with Nerf guns and Super Soakers have Johnson to thank.
His own father, a military truck driver, taught Johnson about electrical currents and how to fix household appliances at a young age. This sparked his curiosity in building and creating things, and his talent for mechanics and experimentation quickly landed him the nickname “The Professor” among friends.
Johnson spent most of his teen years tinkering with mechanics and small engines, even building a robot called Linex for a fair at the University of Alabama in 1968. Despite Linex coming in first place, the University of Alabama overlooked Johnson as a possible future student. Instead, he ended up going to Tuskegee University (where an inspiration of his, George Washington Carver, taught). He attended on a scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering followed by a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.
After college, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force, where he helped develop a stealth bomber program. Later he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, helping the Galileo mission get to Jupiter and the Cassini mission reach Saturn.
In 1989 he designed the Super Soaker squirt gun, then known as the Power Drencher in. Within two years, the toy generated $200 million in sales. To this day, Johnson has several patents under his belt and is always working on new inventions. He’s currently a member of the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Atlanta and a member of the Georgia Alliance for Children.