Super Soaker Inventor Lonnie Johnson Faced Racism as a Black Engineer

Lonnie Johnson is the inventor of the much beloved Super Soaker. As a Black engineer, he says he was often underestimated.

“It was because of the success of the Super Soaker, I was able to at least get an audience with people to present come of my other ideas,” he explained.

Johnson attended a segregated Alabama high school in the ‘60s, where he entered Alabama University’s science competition. He built a robot that won first place and said he was the only Black student with a science project in the entire event.

He went on to earn degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering and a PhD in science from Tuskegee University. He then worked for the air Force Weapons Lab as acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section. In 1979, he joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, where he worked on the Galileo mission and Mars Observer project.

As a Black engineer, Johnson said he had to prove himself as a professional.

“I would say that engineering has been a very positive experience overall, but usually coming into the situation it would be one of being underestimated,” he stated. “People would actually have low expectations. But I would take advantage of it quite honestly, because I would take my time to underestimate the situation.”