The power of ingenuity and hard work

Published 1:38 pm Sunday, March 6, 2022

By Ronnie Michel

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 place.

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.

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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 can be reached at