Engineer, inventor Lonnie Johnson discusses ‘Impact of Technology’

Engineer and inventor Lonnie Johnson was the guest speaker at WCU’s inaugural celebration of Engineers Week on Monday, Feb. 19.

Engineers Week at Western Carolina University kicked off Monday, Feb. 19, with guest speaker Lonnie Johnson addressing engineering and technology students on the “Impact of Technology” at the A.K. Hinds University Center’s Grandroom.

Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker water gun, shared his experiences as an engineer and inventor, while offering this advice to future engineers: “Be fearless and persevere,” he said. “It’s about setting goals, pursuing those goals, and not giving up until they’re achieved. Set out to do what you envision and accomplish it.”

Johnson began is talk by discussing how he came across the idea of the Super Soaker. After returning to the Air Force in 1982, Johnson was working on a longtime personal project, an environmentally friendly heat pump that would use water instead of Freon. While experimenting with different nozzles, he noticed a high-pressure stream coming out of the nozzles, and immediately a light went off.

“I thought a high-pressure water gun would really be neat, so I stopped working on the heat pump and started designing a high-performance water gun,” Johnson said.

He received a patent for the toy in 1986. He eventually sold the water gun, initially called the “Power Drencher,” to Larami Corporation in 1989. It wasn’t until some additional tinkering and a name change to “Super Soaker” that it became a hit. The Super Soaker topped $200 million in sales in 1991.

Now under Hasbro, which purchased Larami, the Super Soaker sales have reached nearly reached $1 billion and it is annually ranked among the world’s top 20 best-selling toys.

But Johnson said what most people don’t know about him is his contribution to the NERF dart gun’s success. The NERF dart gun, which was owned by toymaker Hasbro, was already out when the Super Soaker was introduced. Wanting to be the king of all toy guns, Johnson began designing dart guns, both big and small, that could outperform Hasbro’s version.

“When I went and presented it to (Hasbro), they saw how well my guns worked and they didn’t want me to take that product line somewhere else,” Johnson said. “I literally intimidated them into doing a deal with me. They didn’t want to lose the existing market share that they had.”

Soon afterwards, Johnson said he had a falling out with Hasbro, alleging that the company defaulted on their contract and stopped paying royalties. He was later awarded more than $70 million in a settlement.

Johnson also discussed some of his other notable accomplishments. He represented all-African-American Williamson High School in the 1968 Alabama science fair. As the only African-American participant, Johnson entered a robot he built named Linex, which won first place.

“I remember thinking, it’s going to take a really long time to build this, but it’s going to be awesome when I get it done,” Johnson said. “He was fully remote controlled. I had a transmitter and a receiver so I could transmit signals and command him. He could swivel on his base and he had wheels so he could move around. He had arms that had all of the joints that a human arm had and he had little grabbers so he could pick up stuff.

“In reality, just making him work at all and having all those things move was a huge victory in itself. The wheels and swiveling on his base used electric motors, but his arms used compressed air cylinders to move the joints.”

Currently, one of Johnson’s companies, Johnson Battery Technologies Inc., is introducing a new generation of rechargeable battery technology that has the potential to revolutionize the battery industry. By providing a source of energy much greater than what exists today in a substantially reduced size, this technology will solve many of the problems related to technology mobility in the future, he said.

Johnson also has developed a thermodynamic energy conversion technology called JTEC that converts heat to electrical energy with significant advantages over alternative systems.

“JTEC is one of my inventions that I’m very excited about,” he said. “It’s an engine that converts heat directly to electricity. It doesn’t care where the heat comes from. It has no mechanical moving parts.”

Johnson also stressed that his successes didn’t come without failures. He shared a story of how, as a middle schooler, he was interested in rockets. He used to buy Estes Rocket kits and launch them. Eventually, he wanted to have his own rockets, so he went to a library and found a recipe for rocket fuel. He recognized all of the ingredients except one, so his plan was put on hold.

Then, one day, his mother sent him to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription. While waiting for the pharmacist, Johnson was walking the aisles and began reading the labels on different chemicals on the shelves. He stumbled across the ingredient he hadn’t recognized from the rocket fuel recipe and bought some. He heated the ingredients on the stove top.

“It melted down to a tar-like (substance) and you pour this really thick, gooey stuff into the body of the rocket, and then it cools and gets hard and you put the nozzle on it,” Johnson said. “I built rockets and launched them.”

One day while making fuel, Johnson overheated it and sparks began coming out of the side of the pot. The kitchen began filling up with smoke and sparks.

“I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face,” he said. “It scared the heck out of me. Eventually, it cleared. There were a few small burn holes in the kitchen chairs. My dad came home and he looked at me and said, ‘You’re going to have to mix that outside from now on,’ and he bought me a hot plate. Things do go wrong.”

Johnson’s visit was sponsored by the College of Engineering and Technology, the Office of the Chief Diversity Officer, Intercultural Affairs, the Office of Student Success, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Education and Allied Professions.