Lonnie Johnson

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His earliest stroke of genius may have been a remote-controlled robot he named Linex. His imagination was shaped by what he had read in library books and by the robot on the television series Lost in Space. For nearly a year he scavenged at junkyards to find the parts he needed to build the robot's base. He gave it wheels, and he used his sisters' reel-to-reel tape recorder for its eyes. The guts from his brothers' walkie-talkies transmitted signals to the hunk of metal and controlled its movements. Linex won the state science fair in 1968--about the same time Johnson took a science-club test and was informed that he had "little aptitude for engineering." Perhaps, he was told, being a mere technician would better suit him. Looking back, Johnson wonders whether his race was a factor. Winning the science fair had been a big deal because his high school was for black students only, though his graduating class was the last segregated one at the school.

The Ultimate Weapon
On scholarship at Tuskegee University, Johnson earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in nuclear engineering. He did thermal analysis of plutonium fuel spheres at the Savannah River National Laboratory and developed auxiliary cooling systems at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. At the famous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, he worked as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. He joined the Air Force, where he was assigned to the Strategic Air Command and studied nonnuclear-strategic-weapons technology and worked on the Stealth bomber program. He later went back to the Jet Propulsion Lab, where he worked on the Cassini mission to Saturn and was the project engineer for the short-lived Kraft mission to study an asteroid flyby.

It was during the space-probing missions that he happened upon his idea for the Super Soaker. He dubbed his creation a "pneumatic water gun" and made his first prototype from PVC pipe, a plastic Coke bottle and Plexiglas. Then he turned loose his six-year-old daughter Aneka on the neighborhood. Kids and adults alike went nuts over the toy.

For nine years Johnson hawked the water gun to toymakers. It was going to cost $200,000 to produce 1,000 guns. Finally, at a toy fair in New York City, he was introduced to Al Davis, now the executive vice president at Larimi Corp. "I turned around, and there was the saddest guy I'd ever seen," remembers Davis. "He'd been trying to find somebody who was interested in it. He told me that if we turned him down, he was going to give it up."

Davis, mildly interested and polite, invited the dejected inventor to the company's headquarters in Philadelphia, telling him to stop by if he was ever in the neighborhood. Johnson wasted no time; he made a special trip two weeks later and demonstrated the gun for Larimi executives in a conference room. "Wow!" was their only response.

A Helping Hand
Today the Super Soaker has been tweaked and repackaged, with more than 20 different designs. It remains one of the top 20 toys every year, even though it is on store shelves for limited months in most places. But rather than simply retire, Johnson has used his royalties to fund his own research laboratory in Atlanta. What started in his basement moved to a nearly abandoned shopping center in a suburb north of Atlanta and will soon move into spacious digs in one of Atlanta's empowerment zones, a boost to an African-American neighborhood. Johnson Research & Development is a New Age kind of place, where no one drinks coffee and the product engineers are Gen Yers who wear shorts to work and tease Johnson about replacing him through their own cool ideas someday. They snatch the Oreo cookies that he keeps in his desk. He and his staff of 41 are inventing new toys and other products but won't talk about them until the kinks have been worked out of prototypes and the patents have been issued. With the Super Soaker's success, Johnson bought a shiny black Mercedes and a million-dollar home in an exclusive Atlanta neighborhood that was once part of the old Governor's mansion maintained with slave labor. He bought his mother a new Cadillac and paid to renovate her house (she wouldn't let him buy her a new one). He makes it home to Mobile at least once a month.

Johnson has set up a division of his company to broker new inventions, counseling throngs of would-be designers who call him for advice and seek money from him to finance their own dreams. He has also found new interest in his old ideas. Next year a hair curler he conceived of more than a decade ago is expected to be mass-produced in time for Mother's Day.

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