Black History Month: Lonnie Johnson

An anonymous source said of the Super Soaker®: “I got fired from a job once because of my Super Soaker. I guess that’s what happens when you accidentally drench a customer when you’re trying to get a co-worker who ducks.”

Famous black inventor and scientist Lonnie G. Johnson probably didn’t have that little scenario in mind when he invented the Super Soaker squirt gun, but it is one of the countless memories that can be recalled by those who were young enough to enjoy the Super Soaker after its release in 1989.

Johnson’s resume boasts work with the US Air Force and NASA (including work on the Galileo Jupiter probe and Mars Observer project), a nomination for astronaut training and more than 40 patents, but it’s for a squirt gun that he’s best known. Johnson conceived of a novelty water gun powered by air pressure in 1982 when he conducted an experiment at home on a heat pump that used water instead of Freon. This experimentation, which resulted in Johnson shooting a stream of water across his bathroom into the tub, led directly to the development of the Power Drencher, the precursor to the Super Soaker.

Lonnie G. Johnson now has his own company, Johnson Research and Development, and continues to do work for NASA. Currently, Johnson holds over 80 patents, with over 20 more pending, and is the author of several publications on spacecraft power systems.

Two of Johnson’s companies, Excellatron Solid State and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems (JEMS), are developing energy technology. Excellatron is introducing thin film batteries, a new generation of rechargeable battery technology. JEMS has developed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC), listed by Popular Mechanics as one of the top 10 inventions of 2009. JTEC has potential applications in solar power plants and ocean thermal power generation. It converts thermal energy to electrical energy using a non-steam process which works by pushing hydrogen ions through two membranes, with significant advantages over alternative systems, and is claimed to be highly scalable.

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