Michel: Sharing the contributions of Dr. Lonnie Johnson

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 23, 2022

His father taught him and his five siblings to build their own toys. As a child, he and his

dad used bamboo to construct a pressurized chinaberry shooter. He was 13 years old when he

built his own go-kart from scraps, attached a lawnmower engine and raced along the highway

until a policeman pulled him over. While a student at Tuskegee University, he entered his

compressed-air-powered robot named “the Linex” that he had built from junkyard scraps over

the course of a year. Then Lonnie Johnson, the only Black student in the competition, won first


After earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in

nuclear engineering, Johnson joined the U.S. Air Force where he was assigned to the Strategic

Air Command and helped to develop the stealth bomber program.

His creativity and love of invention never ceased and led to the creation of the Johnson

Thermoelectric Energy Converter, an advanced heat engine capable of converting solar energy

into electricity with twice the efficiency of existing methods. That invention earned Johnson the

Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics in 2008.

Another one of his inventions (one of his more than 140 patents), is the popular water-

blasting toy, the Super Soaker. Johnson’s profit from that toy has been poured into research to

develop clean sources of energy.

This summer, when I distribute Super Soakers, I’m going to inform my grandchildren of

the many contributions Dr. Johnson has made to our world. I won’t forget to add his recent

words, “People may call me lucky. I think I’m blessed because God has given me a gift, and I

have felt it would be a sin to waste that gift.”


Ronny Michel can be reached at rmichel@rtconline.com.