theGrio’s 100: Lonnie Johnson, from nuclear scientist to legendary toymaker

Who is Lonnie Johnson?

As founder of Johnson Research and Development Company, Lonnie Johnson  patented over 100 inventions in his three decades long career. He holds degrees  in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering from the historically black college, Tuskegee University in Alabama. Johnson grew up at a time when Jim Crow was legal in the South. He overcame racial obstacles in the segregated schools he attended  to become a co-developer of the stealth bomber and a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn. The 64-year-old is responsible for the creation of the iconic children’s toy, the Super Soaker water gun which was the number one selling toy in the early 1990s. Johnson is considered one of the most successful inventors and entrepreneurs of  his generation.

Why is he on theGrio’s 100?

Johnson had been tenacious in demanding recognition for what this black man has accomplished. While Johnson was acknowledged  as being the father of the Super Soaker in spirit, he wasn’t compensated financially. After a long legal battle that took place from 2007-2012, Hasbro, the original producer of the popular water gun gave Johnson the sum of $72.9 million for his contributions in the development of the toy.

According to  the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the arbitration agreement resolves a 2001 inventors dispute in which Hasbro agreed to pay Johnson royalties for products covered by his Nerf line of toys, specifically the N-Strike and Dart Tag brands. In a separate breach of contract suit filed in US District Court in Atlanta in February, Johnson accused Hasbro of violating a 1996 agreement to pay him Super Soaker royalties. Johnson took Hasbro to task for selling water guns that were “visually similar and based upon the appearance of Super Soaker water guns that incorporate Johnson’s technology.” Though Super Soaker has been modified over 50 times it continues to be a mainstay within American culture.

What’s next for Johnson?

Lonnie Johnson now has his sights set on green technology and is making his presence known in that sector of the business. Perhaps his most significant project to date is the development of  the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter.  This is an advanced heat engine that can reportedly convert solar energy into electricity with twice the efficiency of current methods.  “Johnson will carve out a much greater place in history as one of the seminal figures of the ongoing green technology revolution,” said Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation. He summed up the immense importance of Johnson’s work saying,  “This is a whole new family of technology … It’s like discovering a new continent. You don’t know what’s there, but you sure want to explore it to find out … It has a darn good chance of being the best thing on Earth.”

You can contact Mr. Johnson at his site here.