Born in 1949 in segregated Mobile, Alabama, he dreamed of becoming a famous inventor, even earning himself the childhood nickname "the professor." He built his own go-kart engine from junkyard scrap and often cooked rocket fuel in one of his mom's saucepans. By his senior year of high school in 1968, Johnson had developed a three-and-half-foot-tall remote-controlled robot he named Linex.
He graduated with degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University, joined the Air Force as the acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, then moved to NASA's Jet Propulsion lab in 1979 where he was working as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. It was then, in 1982, already having several patents to his name, that he had his Eureka moment.
One of his pet projects was an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon. One day, tinkering as he often did, Johnson hooked up a nozzle to the bathroom faucet. When he turned on the water, it sprayed clear across the room. "The stream of water was so powerful that it set up air currents in the bathroom," he told CNBC. "I thought to myself, 'This would make a neat water gun.'" It doesn't take a rocket scientist to build a toy, but it certainly doesn't hurt, either.
Johnson rejoined the Air Force in the following months to work on the B-2 Bomber, better known as the Stealth Bomber, and developed the toy alone in his spare time using PVC pipes and plexiglass. There he was: working on one of the most advanced military weapons of all time by day, and playing with a water gun by night. Lonnie's 6-year-old daughter, Aneka, was one of the first to test it out. "To be the only kid on the block to have a water gun that was bigger than a water pistol was awesome -- no one could touch me," she says. "Everyone ran from me."
It took nearly a decade to get the Super Soaker in stores. Despite interest, Lonnie's home-brewed invention went through a series of false starts with different companies. But traction finally came in 1989 when Johnson landed a meeting in Philadelphia with Larami, a company known for knocking off popular toys. In his presentation, Johnson shot a stream of water across the room and knocked water cups off the table, eliciting a "wow" from Larami's president, Myung Song. "That was all it took," Johnson says. "He was impressed."
The toy hit stores as the "Power Drencher" in 1990. It sold well, despite a lack of advertising. But it soon ran into another snag: Another toy inventor was selling a type of water gun that included "drencher" on the toy's packaging, Song told Johnson over the phone. During that call, to avoid having to pay royalties, the two landed on a new name: the Super Soaker.