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Celebrating The Black Inventor: 
Lonnie Johnson


Lonnie George Johnson is an aerospace, mechanical and nuclear engineer, and an entrepreneur.   Johnson’s budding interest in mechanical systems and robotics lead to his stellar career as an inventor, holding over 100 patents. 

Johnson is best known for an invention that made his fortune and became an iconic toy of the 1990s, an extremely powerful water pistol called: The Super Soaker. The Super Soaker became one of the world's best selling toys ever since, generating more than $1 billion in sales, by 2016. Johnson holds 100 patents for engines, batteries, and spacecraft.



Lonnie Johnson’s Patents

Water Gun – Patent No.  5,074,437 (1991)













Lonnie Johnson is an excellent example of someone who took a product from idea to market.   Here are some aspects of Johnson’s journey that you can use to plan your own invention development journey.

Early Childhood

Lonnie George Johnson was born on October 6, 1949.   His father, a World War II veteran, was a skilled handyman who taught his six children to build their own toys.  He gave Lonnie an early lesson in electrical current and showed him tips to repair various household items, such as irons and lamps.


Lonnie grew up in Mobile, Alabama during the 1960s, when black children were not expected to go far. Yet his curiosity and talent for engineering lead him to surpass those great expectations. The achievements of African American inventor George Washington Carver also inspired Lonnie to pursue his interest in inventions.

Lonnie attended Tuskegee University where he obtained a bachelor's in mechanical engineering in 1973, master's in nuclear engineering in 1975. He also earned an honorary Ph.D. in Science from Tuskegee University.


After graduating from Tuskegee Johnson began working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as a research engineer, on high-temperature nuclear reactors.   Subsequently, Johnson worked at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, on advanced spacecraft that used nuclear power sources.  

In 1975, Lonnie was called to active duty in the Air Force, studying US space launches that used nuclear power.  The work lead to an invitation to support the Galileo Mission, an unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons.  Johnson was responsible for attaching the nuclear power source to the spacecraft and allocating power to the various systems - the science instruments, the computer, the power control system.    Johnson also worked on the team responsible for the Cassini mission to Saturn.



Later, as a power systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Johnson started to work on the development of a heat pump in his home bathroom. The pump served as the basis for the further development of high pressurized toy water gun.   


At that time I was experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system that would use water as a working fluid instead of ozone-destroying CFCs. One evening, I machined a nozzle and hooked it up to the bathroom sink, where I was performing some experiments. It shot a powerful stream of water across the bathroom sink. That's when I got the idea that a powerful water gun would be fun!” - Lonnie Johnson



After a second tour of duty with the Air Force in 1982, Johnson poured his effort into becoming an entrepreneur.  


At first, Johnson did not have $200,000 to produce first-run prototypes.  

“My initial idea was to manufacture the gun myself. A factory told me it would cost $200,000 to get the first 1,000 guns off the production line. Well, I didn't have $200,000, so I realized I would have to go into a strategic partnership with a toy company.  There followed seven years of frustration and false starts. I don't know what it is with me, but I've never been very good at giving up.” - Lonnie Johnson

Strategic Partnership

In 1989, Johnson partnered with Larami Corp. to create his initial run at water guns.

“I remember sitting in their conference room with the president and vice-president of the company and some marketing people. I opened my suitcase, took the gun out, and shot it across the conference room. And they said: “Wow!” - Lonnie Johnson


Marketing is sometimes overlooked at the beginning of a product development process.  Johnson did not rely on marketing when he first launched his product.

“In 1990, the gun appeared in the toy shops. It was called the Power Drencher. To begin with, we didn't do any marketing or TV advertising - but it still sold well.” - Lonnie Johnson


But when Johnson rebranded the water gun, he expanded the marketing to build on the audience.  


“The following year, we rebranded the toy the Super Soaker and did a big push on TV. That was the summer we sold 20 million guns, and I remember just staring at my royalties cheque in disbelief.” - Lonnie Johnson


The key to sales is to establish a marketing plan.   Develop a list of features of your product that you can emphasize in a digital ad, email, or marketing content.The features of your product need to be explained so that customers understand the benefits of your product.

Invention Journey

It took several years with many failures and successes for Lonnie Johnson to bring his product to market. With a functional prototype he was able to develop investor interest while adding a "Wow" factor to his invention.

iMagine-It-Tech can help you develop the "Wow" into your invention! We provide the resources to build a viable prototype. You provide the imagination, just like Lonnie Johnson.   



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