Lonnie Johnson is a real rocket scientist and brain-busting inventor. He built a robot out of scrap metal and helped to develop interplanetary missions for NASA and the stealth bomber program for the U.S. Air Force. He also came up with a massively popular toy called the Super Soaker. He thought of it one day while thinking about a heat pump idea in his bathroom.
The Super Soaker has earned more than a billion dollars in sales.
Childhood projects: Go Kart
One project included putting together a working engine out of parts from a scrapyard and then sticking the engine on a go-kart that they had made.
It had thin wagon wheels instead of tyres, and the hood (bonnet) was just a crate.
The steering was controlled with a piece of string.
Johnson said: “we had to push the car to get it going, but after that it could sustain itself.”
Linex: The Robot
Linex: The Robot
It took Lonnie almost a year to make his robot Linex.
He was 1m tall, had shoulders that could rotate, and two arms that could swivel at the wrists and elbows. He could pivot and move around on wheels.
His chest contained a propane tank that Lonnie filled with compressed air to move the limbs. His memory was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which Lonnie had linked to a remote-control unit improvised from his sister’s walkie-talkie.
Linex was controlled by signals transmitted through this unit.
When you turned the tape recorder on it recorded different frequencies and tones, like the noises you get when you press the buttons on a telephone.
Then it would play back, and the robot would follow all of the instructions.
Linex won Lonnie the first prize in a fair held by the Junior Engineering Technical Society.
Impressions of Lonnie
From what you have learned about Lonnie Johnson so far, what adjectives would you use to describe him?
Summarise Lonnie’s childhood achievements in two sentences.
What do you think Lonnie will go on to achieve as an adult?
Lonnie got an Air Force scholarship and a maths scholarship to Tuskegee University and then got a Master’s Degree in nuclear engineering.
After this he went to work for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the U.S. Air Force. While working for the Air Force Lonnie identified a possible failure NASA had overlooked, and he was then invited on to the Galileo Mission, the unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons.
The Super Soaker
In 1982 Johnson was trying out nozzles in his bathroom sink when one of them shot a powerful stream into the bathtub.
“I thought if I had a toy water gun that was really high pressure and something that a small child could operate, it would be really neat (cool),” said Lonnie.
That year he left NASA to return to the Air Force. In his spare time, he worked on his water gun.
Lonnie said he was unsure how it was going to turn out until all the parts were together and he was ready to pull the trigger.
The Super Soaker
Lonnie’s initial idea was to manufacture the gun himself, but a factory told him that it would cost $200,000 to get the first 1,000 guns off the production line.
So, he partnered up with a toy company. In 1990, the gun appeared in the toyshops.
The Super Soaker hit the shelves and quickly became the number 1 selling toy in the country, and one of the hottest toys of summer for years.
Where is Lonnie now?
Today, Dr. Lonnie Johnson is founder and president of Johnson Research and Development Company where he’s still inventing new technologies, including better ways to power cars, airplanes and even spaceships.
He has more than 100 patents, with more than 20 pending. Some of his inventions, including a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat, achieved commercial success.
Others, including a baby’s nappy that plays a nursery rhyme when full, failed to catch on.
He also created the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter which is a highly efficient and advanced heat engine that can convert heat into electricity.
What is he doing now?
Along with his ground-breaking scientific work and inventions, Johnson is board chairman of the Georgia Alliance for Children and a member of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, an organisation that mentors high school and college students.
Some words from Lonnie Johnson
“In spite of the things that have been done to my race – holding us in bondage under slavery, then making it illegal to educate us and then subjecting us to long-term discrimination and criticism – we succeed anyway, to a very large extent. We just need to realise what we’re capable of.”
After reading Lonnie Johnson’s biography, can you pick out 5 important facts about Lonnie Johnson’s life and note them down?