Alonzo "Lonnie" Johnson was an American blues and jazz singer, guitarist, violinist and songwriter. He was a pioneer of jazz guitar and jazz violin and is recognized as the first to play an electrically amplified violin.
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Hey Reddit! I’ve worked at the U.S. Air Force Weapons Laboratory, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the Strategic Air Command. Now I own my own laboratory, and I’m trying to solve the world’s energy problems.
I'm currently doing research and development on a solid state battery, and the Johnson Thermoelectric Energy Converter [JTEC]
(http://johnsonems.com/) - which converts heat directly to electricity with no moving mechanical parts.
I also sponsor several [Georgia FIRST]
(https://gafirst.org/) robotic teams at my facility through my non-profit - The Johnson STEM Activity Center.
A picture of me was posted to Reddit this week, and it made it to the front page. I'm brand new to Reddit, but I'm told that is pretty cool.
I'm here to answer your questions for the next few hours.
EDIT: Thank you all so much! I look forward to interacting with you all more in the future. Press on!
How did you file the patent? Large law firm?
I went to the library and got a book on how to write patents. But before I submitted the patent I went to an Air Force patent attorney. He reviewed it as a favor, and told me it needed a lot of work. Through working with him, and redrafting my patent, I learned how to file patents on my own. As a result I was able to file my first series of patents on my own.
Now I use a law firm to file my patents for me, but having an understanding of patents certainly helps to understand when you have a quality application.
We can clearly see this product was a hit. Can you tell us about one of your failures, or inventions that didn't "take off"?
Thanks for making childhood a blast
Jammin' Jet. It was commercialized. It was a water propelled airplane that was pumped just like a Super Soaker with water shooting out the back, propelling it into flight. The manufacturer changed the design of the plane to fly in a circle, but didn't adjust the wings so as it turned it would roll and dive into the ground. Usually causing the plane to break after the first launch. Exciting toy, exciting commercial, disappointing in the end.
Which super soaker would you say is your favorite?
What was your reaction when super soakers became as successful as they did? Are any of your other patents as recognizable in their respective fields? Did super soakers help you jumpstart any of your other research either through funding or recognition
Very sobering. "Oh wow my life has changed". I had to sit down and think about what my life would be like going forward.
I am responsible, to a large extent, for the success of the NERF dart gun line.
What's the strangest reaction you've come across when people find out you invented the super soaker?
I went and gave a talk at a school, years ago, after the Super Soaker first came out. I told them that I had invented it, and they didn't believe me. I left the school with them never really accepting the idea that I had invented the water gun.
what's one thing you wish you had invented?
The Digital Distance Measuring Instrument. Patent No. 4143267 - It used photolithography to produce a binary encoded scale that could be read using an optical sensor and a magnifying glass. That is the base technology for DVDs and CDs. I received that patent in 1979. I was enjoying my day job working on space craft and was patenting for fun. Knowing what I know now, it is the big fish that got away.
Thanks for making my childhood better, Lonnie.
When you were coming up with the Super Soaker, what kind of R&D did you do to test the spray’s reach, how much the tank could hold before running out, etc?
I’m picturing a makeshift lab of some sort where you guys were shooting each other or objects with the guns to test their effectiveness.
In designing the gun I applied certain engineering principles with the idea of maximizing the distance that the gun could shoot, but at the same time designing it so that a small child would be able to pump it up to very high pressure. The design of the gun evolved over a period of years, litterally. The initial designs did not have a bottle on top. It wasn't until right before I presented the gun to Larami that I put the bottle on top.
you said it was an accident, what were you working on or trying to create when you made the super soaker?
When I made the Super Soaker I was trying to make a high performance water gun. The desire to make a high performance water gun occurred when I was shooting a stream of water from a nozzle I hooked to a bathroom sink while working on an air conditioner that would use water as a coolant instead of Freon.
What is the secret to make a super soaker shoot really far?
Having high pressure and a relatively large nozzle. However, as you go to higher pressure and the water comes out faster, the stream breaks up in the air and limits how much further the water travels. There's an optimum combination of pressure and nozzle size.
what's your opinion of foam dart guns? And do you have any good puns related to nuclear energy?
High performance dart guns were originally based on my patents. I hold them in high regard.
I'm a nuclear engineer, and engineers aren't known for their humor.
What is your favorite color?
Would you rather super soak one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?
horse-sized duck. Bigger target.
Will we ever see a toy water propulsion system better than the super soaker or is the super soaker the peak of toy water propulsion technology?
I have some ideas...
How Is your day going?
Well let's see. Going very well. Busy day. A number of meetings. I got to spend some time in the shop making some parts for my engine. I got an update from my team working on the solid state battery. Got a hair cut. Had a very good lunch. And now I'm enjoying my first time here on Reddit.
How does it feel to be a part of millions of people's childhoods?
I really appreciate the compliments people give about the water gun. It makes me want to do more to improve quality of life. I'm hopeful that my new technologies will help improve more lives. In fact, the heat pump that I was working on when I got the idea for the Super Soaker was being made to address an environmental problem.
Did you ever expect it to take off in popularity the way it did?
I knew it would be successful because I knew it was a fun toy, but I didn't anticipate it to be a number 1 toy in the world. That's not something one can predict.
Do you feel that other nuclear engineers judge you because of the Super Soaker? Don't get me wrong, but in such a high-level industry, it feels very easy to become the "water toy" guy.
I have an invention on the Galileo spacecraft which went to Jupiter, and my fellow engineers at JPL were skeptical that it would successfully solve the problem we ran into. It went to Jupiter in support of a very successful mission.
I also invented an engine that converts heat into electricity more efficiently than perhaps any other engine and it has no moving mechanical parts.
Super Soaker remains what I am most known for.
I am confident that history will be kind to me.
Hi Mr. Johnson, I've got a question for you: why aren't you wearing the awesome shirt some redditors gave you recently in your proof pic?
> I am responsible, to a large extent, for the success of the NERF dart gun line.
Can you explain?
The N-Strike line was started based on my patents. And the whole thrust of my approach to NERF was to take NERF guns to much higher performance. Shooting darts further. Using rapid fire technology. Making NERF more exciting than what it was prior.
Was it an instant success? How long did it take to become popular?
I got the idea in '82, had a number of false starts, and it wasn't until '89 that I made the presentation to Larami. It was on the market a year later in 1990 as the "Power Drencher". We changed the name in '91 to Super Soaker and because of the consistent sales success in both years by word of mouth, Larami decided to run TV commercials. In 1992 it became the number 1 selling toy in the world.
What's the strangest use you've seen for a Super Soaker?
I once used a Super Soaker to unclog a plugged up water drain at my home.
So, do you get free super soakers? If so, I can imagine that a weekend at grandpa's would be pretty awesome.
I have in the past. We used to routinely get them when we were focused on improving them and redesigning them. But at this point in time I'm not really active in that sector.
Is it true that you are working on a super super soaker contract for the department of defense?
I have worked with and been funded by the Department of Defense in the past for my inventions. It's probably better that I not comment on the specifics of those contracts however.
Is it really nerf or nothing?
I sold a patent to Mattel after the relationship with Hasbro terminated. They created BOOMco Rapid Madness using my technology. I'm curious to see how well they'll do.
I live in Atlanta near the Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Any chance I can get a tour of your lab?
Send me a direct message.
If i asked really really nicely, could i have a free super soaker ?
Depends on who you ask.
Any wisdom to offer about life?
Clearly, you were a smart guy on a good path. But was there anything beyond, Oh, that would be a cool watergun, that led you to create one of the most successful toys ever?
I wanted to be an engineer long before I knew that "engineer" was the term that described what I wanted to do. I was tinkering as a little kid. Always curious about the way things worked. Since that time, what I've done has been to be persistent. So perseverance and continuing to hone your skills is the key to being successful in anything you do.
I have many ideas, but so afraid to move forward in them because I fear they will be stolen and I well . . I don't think I can handle watching a million dollar idea be stolen from me while I cannot afford legal representation to fight it off. Uh, how did you overcome that fear (if you had it that is)?
First off, you can't make money unless someone knows about it. Secondly, I was willing to put my idea out there and to lose as long as I learned from the experience. I felt that subsequent ideas I had I would be able to use that experience to become successful.
In case he doesn't answer again:
[–]Iinex[S] 10 points an hour ago
I remember the first time i saw a Super Soaker when my family was on vacation in Florida. It was a Super Soaker 50 and I knew I had to have one. When we got home my mom got me one. My friend down the street got a Super Soaker 100 and I was never able to compete in a fire fight which made me so frustrated with my beloved SS50. I still schooled all of the plebs with inferior non SS products. That was fun. No question here. Thanks for the memories!
What are some of your favourite childhood toy memories?
What is the advantage of the JTEC over regular solar panels or a solar power tower?
It seems extra complicated to me with so many moving parts which could break down vs something static, and I don't understand how it's more efficient than regular solar cells.
Now that's a complicated question.
But the easy answer is "higher efficiency"
Do you feel that as the inventor of the super soaker it overshadows, or causes other scientists to be reluctant, of any scientific work that you undertake?
I was designing space craft before I was designing Super Soakers. That being said, when you present a really innovative idea the general reaction is usually skepticism if it is something they are not familiar with or have seen before. People don't usually accept radically new ideas readily.
Do you have a giant wall / room in your house dedicated to displaying every super soaker ever made?
If so, can we see this holy super soaker hall of fame of yours?
Yes and no. I do have a display of Super Soakers and I have a display of prototypes we built over the years. My collection is not complete, there are some that got away. Periodically I'll go on ebay to find ones out of production, and some are stored away to protect them. The room in the background of my proof picture is the prototype "museum" we have at my laboratory.
How many super soakers would it take to cool a reactor core safely?
Depends on the size of the reactor.
How did you realize Hasbro was undercutting your royalties?
What are you doing for fun these days??
I went to the toy store one day and saw a number of guns being sold under the N-Strike name, and my royalty check did not reflect the number of guns I saw in the store. I took out my contract and did a close review.
Inventing energy converting technology and batteries that will be 2x better than lithium ion.
Are you any relation to the famous jazz guitarist of the same name?
What do you think is the future for toys in general? Are we moving towards complete digital entertainment like tablets and video games only or is there still room for physical "traditional" toys to grow? Do you think technology can help make toys better?
Video games are satisfying to a point. There will always be a role for activity toys. In the future toys will become more technical and more sophisticated and even more entertaining. The digital and the physical world will tend to merge, and you'll see more and more sophisticated toys.
Is there a Super Soaker model which reached an unexpected commercial success? Likewise, is there a model which failed to meet expectations?
The monster was the largest gun that Larami produced. It was very badass in its look. But the seals around the nozzle had manufacturing defects that were not corrected, and it did not deliver on the promise that the appearance presented. It was a dual nozzle version of the CPS 2500, and would've been great if it worked as well as the 2500.
I understand that the JTEC could be used at nuclear power plants. Is it possible to apply that technology to nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers, or other nuclear powered vessels? If so, do you think there will ever be government contracts to install one of these converters on a carrier?
Yes. Eventually JTEC technology will mature and become widely used. The nuclear community is very conservative with respect to implementing new technology and want to rely on the tried and true. But eventually the performance of the JTEC will warrant its use in nuclear applications.
When it was being designed, did you or anything else wonder, "Hmm, are people going to convert these things into flamethrowers?"
That never occurred to me that people would do that with a water gun, but my philosophy is that everyone is an inventor. Everyone has creative ideas, and hopefully most of them are productive.
What's your opinion on the fidget spinner? Is it just a fad to be forgotten or a classic here to stay?
I could be wrong. It'll stick around, but I suspect it'll go the way of the hula hoop.
What kind of Super Soaker ideas were left on the cutting room floor?
I had one that would be a great Super Soaker in a water war. It was a rapid refill model that when you ran out of water you put the nozzle up directly to a water source and it refilled your gun automatically.
Me being a young airmen, what was your Air Force career like?
Any little golden nuggets of wisdom?
Try to get into Officer Candidate School.
Did you get the idea from cleaning a syringe with running water?
Is it true that the world of toy merchandising is super-cutthroat and full of industrial espionage?
I wouldn't phrase it that way. I would phrase it as hard-ball, hardcore business. One would like to see businesses operate more on principle as opposed to what they can get away with legally.
Thank you for doing this AMA!
Do you have a certain routine or pattern for coming up with ideas for your inventions?
Have you thought about possibly working with one of the many LENR teams.
They are able to generate extra heat but the best they can do is run an inefficient steam turbine to generate electricity.
If high efficiency TECs were involved it would change the whole game.
Please look into this.
NASA is presently reviewing our proposal for use of the JTEC to replace TECs (Thermoelectric Converters) for powering outer planetary space craft. The TECs that NASA presently use are in the 6-8% conversion efficiency range. The JTEC will provide conversion efficiency in the range of 30-40% and thereby SIGNIFICANTLY reduce the nuclear heat source sized requirements to provide the same amount of power.
What is the best invention or idea you've had that for whatever reason never really materialized?
One of the keys to success is realizing that there are many things that can go wrong with a given idea, but my strategy has been to develop multiple inventions to put the odds in my favor. Also to persevere. It's important to know when to quit, I'm just not very good at it.
What is this solid state battery? And when will it be ready for release? May I buy some stock in the company releasing said battery?
The solid state battery uses a solid electrolyte instead of liquid. So it's an all ceramic and metal battery with twice the storage capacity. We are in the process of transitioning the battery out of the laboratory. We have working cells at this point. There are improvements I'd still like to make. We have not yet set up an investment vehicle structure. Stay tuned.
A swamp cooler? I always thought the biggest issue was you were pushing cold air in, but never pulling cold air out and the temperature of the cold air going in was never cold enough to make a difference. Never any circulation. I grew up without true AC and swamp coolers is all we had.
Swamp coolers are used in arid environments where the humidity is low. The evaporation of the water within the swamp cooler takes its heat of evaporation from air resulting in the air becoming cooler as the water evaporates into the air. In a swamp cooler you need a constant supply of water. In the heat pump I was working on, the water would circulate in a closed system similar to the way Freon circulates in a typical AC or refrigerator. In that system the water evaporates because I create a low pressure point within the system and the heat of evaporation is extracted from the surroundings through a heat exchanger.
I gotta ask did the super soaker pay off ???? If so how comfortable are you?
The Super Soaker and NERF allowed me to pursue the other projects that I'm working on.
What do you like to do in your free time?