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  • Writer's pictureZanelle Awinyo

A Blast From The Past

This article was written by Zanelle Awinyo, Year 12

Dr. Lonnie George Johnson is an American inventor, aerospace engineer and entrepreneur with a remarkable portfolio of over 100 patents to his name.

His Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter (JTEC) Technology was named by Popular Mechanics as one of the Top 10 world changing technologies in 2008. This invention was especially suited to military and aerospace applications because it worked by converting body heat (or equipment heat) to electricity allowing one to (temporarily) change their thermal signature. This was revolutionary as it would support undercover squadron/equipment movement by camouflaging their heat signatures.

While Johnson created other inventions that we use daily such as automatic sprinkler controls and hair curlers, he also held several positions in the US Strategic Air Command and the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In addition to this, he worked with NASA on the Galileo (Jupiter), Cassini (Saturn) and Mars Observer projects. With so many groundbreaking inventions, one would think Johnson would be known for his innovations that pushed boundaries of human achievement, however, in reality the astrophysicist is mostly known for one of his most niche inventions.

Born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama, as a child Lonnie Johnson used to build robots and cook up batches of rocket fuel in his kitchen– literally. From taking apart his sister's dolls to investigate their mechanics, to turning an old lawnmower and a fan into a homemade go-kart, it was clear to everyone around him that Johnson had innovation in his blood. His interest in science and technology was fostered by his father, who taught him how electric currents work and how to repair household appliances.

Throughout his teenage years, Johnson continued engineering small projects and in 1968, he went on to debut a robot named “the Linex“ at a highschool science fair which took place in the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He won the competition and graduated from the last segregated class of Williamson High School, in 1969, before going on to attend Tuskegee University on a maths scholarship.

At Tuskegee University, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, and two years later he received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering.

Johnson then spent the next few years working for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the United States Air Force, where he helped develop the stealth bomber programme– and later on, he moved on to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979, working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn– and it was at this time that the magic truly began.

It was at this time when the astrophysicist’s fascination with thermodynamics and fluid dynamics ignited a spark of brilliance that would lead to something extraordinary. One evening, while fiddling with ideas for a NASA spacecraft– in which he aimed to create a new refrigeration system that used water instead of the environmentally hazardous freon– he hooked a nozzle up to his bathroom sink and accidentally shot a stream of water across the bathroom. And in a spark of ingenuity, the idea of a high-powered water gun was developed.

Unfortunately, the project had to be put on pause so that Johnson could move from Pasadena to Nebraska, where he rejoined the Air Force. However, by day, Johnson worked on high-pressure systems for nuclear reactors at the Air Force Base, and by night, he designed and built the first high-powered water gun prototype. However, Dr. Johnson wasn’t an overnight success. Although the first prototype was complete in 1982, he spent more time refining his invention, acquiring patents and trying to get toy companies interested.

In 1990, after years of hard work, he finally struck a deal with the toy company Larami. They brought his invention to market as the "Power Drencher," which later became the iconic Super Soaker that took the 90’s by storm. It’s safe to say Lonnie's invention changed summer fun forever with over 200 million sold since its launch. The Super Soaker 50 was probably the most prevalent Super Soaker during the first half of the 1990s and it changed the water battle scene forever– launching an arms race of sorts that took place during the 1990s to get bigger and better Super Soakers.

It goes without saying that the Super Soaker had become a cultural phenomenon, always seen at backyard parties, poolside battles and even featured in movies and TV shows. An iconic moment for the Super Soaker was when Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, used the water-gun to defend his home against burglars in the classic 1990 Home Alone movie. Currently under the Nerf Company, the Super Soaker remains prevalent in many childhoods today. So, when you're out there having a blast with your water-gun on a hot summer day, remember the mastermind behind it all, Lonnie Johnson. His story is a testament to the power of curiosity, determination and physics that brought joy to the world.

But here's the thing that really makes Lonnie Johnson's story incredible. He didn’t stop there.

After his work in the US Military, NASA and success with the Super Soaker, he continued inventing, working on things like more efficient batteries and even a device to turn heat into electricity. A lifelong innovator, some may refer to Dr. Lonnie George Johnson, as a real life Tony Stark.

…And that's a Free Fact you now know.


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