You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to come up with a great idea, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For Lonnie Johnson, a lifetime of achievement and success at various levels on government and private sector projects could not prepare him for the success the he would ultimately achieve – by building a better squirt-gun.
Lonnie Johnson was born on October 6, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. His father worked as a civilian driver at Brookley Air Force Base, and his mother was a homemaker who worked part time as a nurse’s aide. His father taught Robert and his brothers how to repair various household items, prompting the boys to create their own toys. The boys once made a go-kart out of household items and a lawn mower motor. Although his parents were excited about his interest in science and inventing, they weren’t prepared for the time he decided to experiment with a rocket fuel he created with sugar and saltpeter which exploded and burned up part of the kitchen. His talents were more refined when he attended Williamson High School and in 1968, as a senior, took part in a national science competition sponsored by the University of Alabama. There he displayed a remote controlled robot named “Linex” which he built from scraps found at a junkyard and parts of his brothers’ walkie-talkie and his sisters’ reel-to-reel tape recorder. He placed first in the competition and entered Tuskeegee University on a mathematics scholarship. At Tuskeegee he was elected into the Pi Tau Sigma National Engineering Honor Society and graduated with distinction in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. He continued on at Tuskeegee and received a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering in 1975.
After graduation, he took a position at the Savannah River National Laboratory, conducting thermal analysis on plutonium fuel spheres. He later served as a research engineer, developing cooling systems at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory