Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in July 2009.
Lonnie Johnson’s feet churned but no matter the fury, the car behind his bicycle loomed closer. Glancing back, he could see the men inside, the leering, the malevolence.
The 10-year old was on his way to his grandmother’s house, his new bike tires hissing over the asphalt in his Mobile neighborhood. In his child’s mind, Lonnie thought, “It’s a nice bike; I can get away from them,” as he leaned harder into the handlebars.
Johnson lived in the Down the Bay community that today sits just south of downtown. Simple homes, a working class neighborhood suitable for a couple like the Lonnie’s parents. David Johnson was a civil servant while his wife Arline was a nurse’s aide and homemaker.
Lonnie had been warned about keeping his eyes open, about the trouble possible when you don’t pay attention. He listened aptly since tension was palpable in Mobile in those days, during the death throes of Jim Crow. Civil rights conflict had been quieter in the Azalea City than in other areas of the South but it didn’t mean danger was altogether absent.
The carload of white men in Lonnie’s African-American neighborhood caught the child’s eye. He saw them point as he rolled by and heard the auto’s engine gun. Lonnie sped up in pursuit of his brilliant mind, already moving in high gear.
The kid took one corner quickly then heard the car follow suit behind him. He made another turn. The car turned, too.
Lonnie pulled up to the brush near a construction site for an interstate highway. He dropped the bike in tall grass and hid in the shadows of the federal project. The car passed.
The youngster laid low for a bit, just to make sure. One of the brightest and most influential sons in Mobile’s 300-year history, a man who would go on to influence millions of people, to serve his country and mankind ably, was almost a casualty to hatred.
“Thank goodness for I-10,” Arline said.
“We actually lived on Elmira Street when Lonnie was born in 1949,” Arline said. “We moved down to Virginia and Cedar after that.”
David Johnson was a painter at Brookley Air Base. It was steady work in the big boom after World War II and that was what they needed with seven kids, most of them boys who could go through food and clothing.
Arline noticed there was something special about her third born. “I was out back at the clothesline, hanging out wash like we had to do in those days,” Arline recalled. “Lonnie was about two years old and I watched him playing in the sand. And he put his arm down in there and piled the sand up over it, then real carefully pulled his arm out and he had made him a little tunnel there. I remember him patting down that sand on top when he was done.”
“Another time when he was about three or four,” Arline said, “he took one of my empty thread spools and put a matchstick on the end of it somehow then would wind a rubber band up and just make it run all day.”
“They were all mechanical-minded like my husband,” Arline said. They’d follow him around and watch him work on things and he’d show them what he was doing. They’re all smart. I got one that works in music, another one’s an architect, another one works with Lonnie now.”
Lonnie wasn’t a bad kid, his mischief stirred by intellectual curiosity. “He pretty much kept to himself,” Arline said. “Oh, but he was always tearing up the other children’s toys, taking them apart and putting them back together to make what he wanted out of them.”
Lonnie loved to watch, to learn and wasn’t shy about what he knew.
“I remember these men were putting some plumbing, a new drain mechanism in the tub,” Arline chuckled. “Lonnie, he was about 10 then, he was in there and told them, ‘You’re putting it in backwards.’ They didn’t want to hear it, they just chased him out and then after a while when they realized what they had done, they started saying, ‘Where’s that boy? Go bring that boy back in here.’ He was just a smart, little fellow.”
When he was about 12, a grandmother came to the rescue of Lonnie’s siblings and bought him an erector set. “At least he stopped tearing up the other children’s things then,” Arline recalled.
“I remember one time he took a lawnmower and made a dune buggy out of it,” Arline said. “He took it up there onto the construction site where they were building the interstate and was running it up, just going all over. The police ended up coming out there. They weren’t really mad, they just wanted to see what he had but they couldn’t let him stay up there.”
Before long, Lonnie Johnson was experimenting with formulas for his own rocket fuel. One mixture containing sugar and saltpeter got a little out of hand as Lonnie mixed it on the kitchen stovetop.
“The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see,” Lonnie recalled. “Everybody got kind of worried. It burned a few spots.” His parents weren’t angry, instead they bought him a hotplate and dispensed instructions to conduct further experiments outside.
A similar recipe elicited a more severe reaction. “I was at Williamson (High School) then,” Lonnie remembered, “and was working on another fuel formula I brought to school. Another student ignited it and it caused a lot of reaction.” The police arrived and Johnson was taken into custody and accused of criminal behavior. When he explained the scientific nature of his hobby, things finally cooled down until he was brought home.
But by the late ‘60s, the changes coming were evident everywhere. David Johnson was transferred to Keesler Air Force Base in coastal Mississippi when Brookley was closed. He also changed occupations when medical tests revealed the years of paint and fumes had damaged his lungs. He and Arline moved the family home further west, to a brick house on a quiet street near Maysville.
“My class was the last segregated class at Williamson,” Lonnie said. It was during his final year there that Lonnie led a science club to a regional competition at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Their project? A robot designed by Johnson. “Linex,” he laughed in recollection, “my alter ego.”
“He was about three and a half feet tall,” Johnson described. “I had a remote control for him. It had pneumatics, some tubing I scavenged and a butane tank for the compressed air. I used parts of an old jukebox, a reel-to-reel to make him talk, a solenoid relay, other stuff from a junkyard. It took me over a year to make him.”
But on the grounds of a school where Gov. George Wallace stood just a few years before and declared the undeniable power of white supremacy, skepticism for Williamson’s chances of winning were understandable. The panel of judges, however, weren’t politicos or provincial civic leaders, but scientists from around the nation. They were unconcerned about local attitudes.
Linex whipped the competition resoundingly. “Oh, we got a $250 dollar prize and were just kind of told ‘Thanks for coming’ and shuffled off,” Johnson said. “Funny thing though, you would have thought the school that sponsored it would have an interest in offering scholarships to the high school students who won an academic competition but we never heard the first thing.”
Still, he savored it, nonetheless. “It was a moral victory to say the least,” Johnson said.
Tensions were high across the state in those times. “Things could be bad,” Johnson said, his voice dropping. “There was an incident where some white people attacked the Williamson marching band during a Mardi Gras parade that year. I know because my brother was in the band. He lost his trumpet in the violence.”
Johnson talks further about that brother and later mental and emotional difficulty the sibling would experience, things that came to a deadly conclusion. Lonnie still sees the ardor of those times as a catalyst in his brother’s undoing and the subsequent stress it brought to his family.
“My father died not too much longer after that,” Johnson intoned. “I always thought the heartache did him in.”
Lonnie’s path was obvious. Tuskegee University offered him a scholarship where he graduated with a Bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, was a member of Pi Tau Sigma National Engineering Honor Society and earned his Master’s in nuclear engineering.
After college, Johnson fulfilled a ROTC obligation with a stint in the Air Force. He worked at Savannah River National Laboratory, conducting thermal analysis on plutonium spheres, then moved on to the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility as a research engineer, developing cooling systems.
Next, Johnson headed west to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque where he was Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section for four years, then left the service to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Before long, he returned to the USAF and moved to Omaha, Neb. to work at a Strategic Air Command (SAC) facility then moved to the SAC Test and Evaluation Squadron in Edwards, Cal. where he worked on the Stealth Bomber.
Johnson was also Acting Chief at the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section of the Air Force Weapon Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
A Captain, he was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal twice and received the CINC SAC Nomination for Astronaut Training as a space shuttle mission specialist.
Johnson finally returned as a senior systems engineer at JPL where he worked on the Galileo space probe, the Mars Observer project, served as a fault protection engineer on the Saturn Cassini mission project and was later a project engineer for the Kraft mission studying asteroids.
At one point, colleagues told him there was no way to build a power supply for the Galileo probe that would reliably preserve memory if power failed. Johnson asked for only one other engineer to aid him and tackled the problem himself. The craft stayed in contact with Earth for the duration of its 14-year life. “I was the guy responsible for making sure ET could call home,” Johnson quipped.
But it wasn’t the rocket science that would earn Johnson public notice. It was something more in line with childish delight.
It was the early ‘80s and Johnson was concentrat a side project while at home from his day job at SAC in Omaha. “I was looking for an environmentally friendly cooling system that would use water instead of Freon,” he said. “I had this tubing hooked up to the bathroom sink using a nozzle I had machined in my shop.”
When he turned on the faucet, water smacked the opposite wall and parted the shower curtains. “The stream of water was so powerful that it set up air currents in my bathroom,” Johnson said, “and I thought to myself, ‘Geez, this would make a neat water gun.’”
He re-evaluated some things. “At that point I decided why don’t I put the high tech science stuff on hold for a while and go work and see if I can develop a toy, something that anybody could appreciate,” Johnson said. “So it was about a year later that I actually had my first working gun and that was basically how the Super Soaker came into fruition.”
After shopping his prototype pump-action water gun around, he met with Larami Toys in 1989 and they eagerly jumped on board. Production began.
“The problem then became one where we’re talking about a gun that was basically about $10-$14 and people were used to paying about $1 or $2 for a water gun,” Johnson said. “There was no advertising and we just put them in the stores to see what would happen and they just blew out right away.”
“I started to see the royalty checks ramp up and I got my first really interesting check and I looked and I said, ‘Wow, this is doing OK,’” Johnson recalled.
“Larami did some TV advertising and it blew out again,” he continued. “The demand was so much that the production companies could not keep up with it. And then I got my next royalty check. I had to stop and sit down because it was a lot more and when I saw it, I realized my life had changed permanently.”
After Johnny Carson brought a Super Soaker onto the Tonight Show and doused Ed McMahon with it, the future seemed limitless. To date, the water gun has tallied over a billion dollars in worldwide sales.
By the early 1990s, Johnson was gone from JPL and had settled in the Atlanta area, founding his own engineering firm, Johnson R & D, Inc., funded by the Super Soaker fortune. His “serious” projects could now move forward.
To date, he has over 100 patents to his name with about 20 pending. He hasn’t given up on his idea to replace Freon but it’s a pair of recent developments that might be poised to change modern life for most everyone.
One is a new generation of rechargeable battery technology from Excellatron, one of Johnson’s development companies. With the potential to revolutionize the battery industry by providing a far more powerful source in a substantially reduced size, Johnson said the technology could power a vehicle for up to 1,000 miles and he expects the lithium ion batteries to become the standard in camera batteries in the next few years.
Another product, the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Conversion system (JTEC), is simplicity redefined and could reshape the world with a novel approach to electricity generation. Popular Mechanics thought so when they named it one of the top inventions of 2008.
JTEC has no moving parts. It requires no oxygen or fuel, only heat. “It uses temperature differences to create pressure gradients,” Paul Werbos told Popular Mechanics. Werbos is program director at the National Science Foundation, which has provided funding for JTEC. “Instead of using those pressure gradients to move an axle or wheel, he’s using them to force ions through a membrane,” Werbos explained. “It’s a totally new way of generating electricity from heat.”
JTEC circulates hydrogen between two membrane-electrode assemblies in a closed system with no new hydrogen needed. One assembly is coupled to a heat source like concentrated sunlight, and the other to a heat sink such as ambient air.
An electrical jolt begins the cycle then the unit starts producing current. As long as it gets heat, electricity emerges at double the efficiency of today’s best technology.
It is completely scalable and has applications from the micro to the massive. It can utilize heat from fuel combustion, solar, low-grade industrial waste, almost anywhere. “Imagine putting this in a pacemaker for the human heart,” Johnson said, “As long as the recipient has a body temperature, it converts that to electricity with nothing else needed. No new batteries.”
JTEC is still in development. “We’re probably about two years from getting it on the market,” Johnson said.
Though he’s now in another state, Johnson is still connected with the Azalea City. Years ago, he met another Mobile native when he was introduced to Hank Aaron at a social function. The men hit it off and Johnson became involved with Aaron’s social and civic projects. “We’ve got a little ‘Mobile Mafia’ up here,” Johnson joked, citing a group of Mobile natives who have formed bonds in the capital of the New South.
Johnson also stays in touch with his hometown in other ways. His mother, Arline, still lives here. “We come back every year for Mardi Gras,” Johnson said. The inventor was Grand Marshall of the MAMGA parade in 1998 and it rejuvenated his interest in the annual event.
It was a rare honor from his hometown. Even though Marietta, Ga. declared a Lonnie Johnson Day in 1994, a search of Press-Register archives failed to turn up a similar event in Mobile during the 15 years since then.
Lonnie’s legacy in the family is firm. “I was the first in my family to go to college,” Johnson said. Not only are two of Johnson’s sons inclined toward engineering, but his mother brags about one of Lonnie’s nephews who is a 15-year-old junior at Tuskegee University studying aerospace engineering.
As Mobile’s version of Thomas Edison, Johnson is adamant about changing society’s approach to children. “You know, when I was tinkering with stuff, when I was involved with the fuel at school, people didn’t overreact like they do now,” he said. “They were patient.”
Johnson also references a standardized test he took in high school. “It said I had no aptitude for engineering,” he chuckled.
Thank Lonnie for his determination. Thank his parents for their support.
And “thank goodness for I-10.”