Lonnie G. Johnson is a renowned inventor and engineer who’s worked for NASA and the U.S. Air Force and holds more than 120 patents, but in the late 1960s he was just a young man mixing rocket fuel over the stove in his mother’s kitchen when it accidentally caught fire.
“I think I put on two pair of pants that day because I knew I was going to get it, but when my dad came home he looked at me and said: ‘Son, you’re going to have to mix that outside from now on,’ and he bought me a hot plate,” Johnson said. “That kind of support — believing in kids and not punishing them for taking a risk — that is the most powerful thing you can do as a parent.”
Johnson shared this recollection earlier this week as Williamson High School — his alma mater — dedicated a new learning center that will be named in his honor. The $4 million, 12,000-square-foot addition will include eight new classrooms and science labs, additional office space and a multipurpose area. It will also house Williamson’s robotics team, which Johnson helped start.
Robots have always held a special place in Johnson’s heart, and one, in particular, helped launch his impressive career in engineering. Johnson built “Linex” in the same kitchen where he used to mix rocket fuel, and that robot earned him first prize at a statewide science fair in 1968.
In the early part of his 27-year career at Williamson, science teacher Walter Ward helped Johnson with his robotics project and then personally drove him and another classmate, Deacon Johnny Kennedy, to the University of Alabama for the science fair.
It was there, just five years after former Gov. George Wallace made his stand in the schoolhouse door on the same campus, that Johnson — an 18-year-old black student from a segregated high school in Mobile — took first prize.
As he recalled this week, it wasn’t a very “cordial welcoming.”
“I don’t remember why we stopped on the way home, but I remember [the teachers] got out of the car and Johnny and I were sitting in the car and we could hear them cursing about how we’d been treated,” Johnson said. “We’d won first place, but they didn’t ask me what my grades were or anything like that, and they were certainly not interested in me attending the university.”
Johnson would go on to attend Tuskegee University on a math scholarship, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. After college, he joined the Air Force as an engineer and went on to work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
Despite those achievements and founding two technology-development companies, Johnson is best known for inventing the Super Soaker and the original concept of what would become Nerf guns. He eventually sued Hasbro for underpaying royalties for the Super Soaker and several Nerf toys and was awarded close to $73 million in 2013.
Johnson has invented more than toys, though.
In 2009, Popular Mechanics magazine listed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System as one of its top inventions. Part of Johnson’s work on green energy solutions, the system has potential applications for solar and ocean thermal power generation.
Williamson Principal Kirven Lang said it was no coincidence Johnson was honored by the school during Black History Month. He also said seeing such a successful alumnus return and give back to the community was important for students — especially young black students.
“Oftentimes when we talk about black history, we’re talking about people who the children cannot really see or touch, but today was an opportunity for them to see, not just Mr. Johnson, but also other leaders in the community,” Lang told reporters.
Though Johnson continues to run two businesses, robotics has remained an important focus for him. Partnering with the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, he has provided space and opportunities for inner-city students to get involved with the national First Robotics Competition (FRC).
At Johnson’s urging, Kennedy agreed to help start an FRC team at Williamson, which launched this year. It’s the only such team in the Mobile area and one of only two in Alabama.
“I told the coaches [in Atlanta], we’re going to build robots and we’re going to compete but our primary mission is to go into the inner cities where there are kids who normally might not participate in something like this and get them involved, and we’ve done this all over the state,” Johnson said. “Now Georgia is leading the country in the number of African-American students involved in the First Robotics Program, and we’re going to do the same thing in Alabama.”
There are currently 22 students on Williamson’s FRC team, which is led, along with Kennedy and other community mentors, by science teacher Jeremy Stadford. Asked about the program, Johnson said he knows firsthand the kind of impact robotics can have on teenage minds.
“The most important thing is that the program builds self-confidence,” he said. “As they’re doing it, they’ll see the results of their work and see things they had at one point imagined working in reality. That’s a very powerful feeling, and that will stay with them.”
After the dedication of the Lonnie G. Johnson Education Complex, Johnson said he was overwhelmed by the honor as well as the support the community has had for Williamson’s students and its robotics team. Several elected officials helped finance the program, he noted.
The construction of the complex is scheduled to be completed over the next 14 months, but Johnson said he hopes it will serve as an inspiration to Williamson students for years to come.
“In chemistry, one of the things we learn is that you can put chemicals together and they have all of the components for a reaction, but sometimes they still need a catalyst,” he said. “With everybody here and this community, the desire to have a major impact and see our students do well is there, and I’m just blessed I was in a position to be a catalyst and provide that spark.”
An earlier version of this story suggested former Gov. George Wallace’s famous “Segregation forever” quote was made during his stand at the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama. In fact, those words were part of the 1963 inaugural address Wallace made at the State Capitol in Montgomery.
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