Lonnie Johnson had come home to tinker again. In 1982 the young nuclear scientist spent his days developing advanced space systems for the Strategic Air Command. At night, while his wife and kids slept upstairs, he used mathematic and scientific formulas to launch his own dreams from the basement. He had built a model of a heat pump that used water instead of unfriendly Freon. Attaching a homemade nozzle to the end of tubing and connecting it to his bathroom sink, he carefully turned on the water. It shot out a stream so powerful that its air currents ruffled the curtains. "Eureka!" Johnson told himself. "This would make a great water gun."
The rest, as they say, is history. Johnson, a small-town prodigy called the Professor by his high school buddies, had wrought one of the best-selling toys ever: the Super Soaker, a pump-action water gun capable of streaming water 50 feet. In the 12 years since he first got U.S. Patent No. 4,591,071 for the "squirt gun," as it is listed in official government records, more than 200 million Super Soakers have been sold. Revenue estimates for the gun range as high as $400 million. "Lonnie is the American success story," says Dick Apley, director of independent inventor programs for the U.S. Patent Office.
The Super Soaker is just one of 62 patents (with an additional 18 pending approval) that Johnson has amassed since his basement days. He's had ideas for hair-drying rollers, a digital thermostat, a baby-diaper detector that activates musical nursery rhymes when wet, and a device that measures soil moisture and waters grass automatically. Many of his ideas never went further than the prototype. He didn't have the money or the contacts in those early days to push them into production. "There are all kinds of ways to skin a cat, and there are all kinds of mousetraps," says Johnson, 51. "Lady Luck is indifferent. She smiles sometimes, and she frowns sometimes."
History books already include passages about Johnson's success as an African-American inventor, showing his work next to the everyday inventions of other black scientists and engineers who are relative unknowns: the man who invented refrigerated trucks, the woman who developed a machine for hair permanents or the man who patented the automatic traffic signal. Officials from the Patent Office, which reports that only 6% of patent applications come from blacks, hail Johnson as a role model and cite his Super Soaker to capture the imagination of schoolchildren.
As a kid in Mobile, Ala., Johnson says, he was inspired by the legend of George Washington Carver. Johnson was born to a large family in the segregated South; his father worked as a civilian driver at the local Air Force base, and his homemaker mother sometimes worked in a laundry or as a nurse's aide. In the summer, Johnson's parents would pick cotton on his grandfather's farm. The family lived on $126 a month, but they were not so poor as others in the neighborhood.