Lonnie George Johnson was born October 6, 1949 in the super-hot segregation in Mobile, Ala, the son of a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at nearby Air Force bases and a nurse’s aid mother. Johnson’s father was a skilled handyman who taught his children to build their own toys. The seeds of this genius inventor, scientist and engineer was planted early.
When Johnson was a prepubescent, he and his dad built a pressurized Chinaberry shooter out of bamboo shoots. At the age of 13, Johnson attached a lawnmower engine to a go-cart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over. That was the end of that.
George Washington Carvers, one of America’s greatest ever inventors
The young Johnson wanted to be an inventor like his hero, George Washington Carver. But before Johnson’s career as an barrier-breaking inventor could get off the ground, he nearly blew his house off the ground. He nearly burned the house down when he attempted to cook up rocket fuel in one of his mother’s saucepans and the concoction exploded.
Former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, in the doorstep of the University of Alabama
Because of his race and Jim Crowism, Johnson was advised not to aspire beyond being a technician. But he was undeterred. Nicknamed “The Professor” by his high school buddies, as a senior Johnson represented his school at the 1968 Alabama State Science Fair. The fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where just five years earlier, in 1963, Governor George Wallace had literally tried to bar two black students from enrolling in the school by standing in the doorway of the auditorium. As the only black boy in an all-white competition in the Deep South, Johnson neverheless won the competition hands down, much to the anger of university officials.
After graduation, Johnson earned a scholarship to Tuskegee University—where his idol George Washington Carver had once taught—and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. Upon the completion of his master’s, Johnson joined the Air Force and gradually established himself as an important member of the government scientific establishment. Johnson was assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. His other assignments included analyzing plutonium fuel spheres at the Savannah River National Laboratory and working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.
Propelled by the success of the Super Soaker, Johnson founded his own company, Johnson Research & Development, since acquiring over 100 patents. Some of his inventions, such as a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat, have achieved commercial success. Others, like a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled, failed to catch on.
Paul Werbos of the National Science Foundation sums up the immense importance of Johnson’s work: “This is a whole new family of technology … It’s like discovering a new continent. You don’t know what’s there,
Johnson and his wife Linda Moore have four children and live in the Ansley Park neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia.