It was a simple question, but for a man like Lonnie Johnson, who has worked on space programs and stealth bombers and invented the Super Soaker water gun, it was an intriguing one: “Do you ever get stuck?”
The question from a Williamson student last week allowed Johnson to share one of his most important lessons in a lifelong career as an engineer and inventor.
“One of the most important things I learned is, when you run into a problem, learn and find a solution,” Johnson said. “Don’t let it stop you.”
Johnson, a Williamson High alum, spoke to students at his alma mater and Williamson Middle Grades Preparatory Academy last week, sharing stories of how he got started in engineering during the Civil Rights era and some of the NASA missions on which he worked.
A graduate of Tuskegee University with degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering, Johnson worked on the stealth bomber program while in the U.S. Air Force and later worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on the Galileo mission to Jupiter. He is founder and president of two Atlanta-based technology companies: Excellatron Solid State LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems.
After being inspired as a boy by John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a man on the moon, Johnson said he was told after taking an aptitude test at school that he wasn’t cut out to be an engineer. He continued his passion of tinkering, however, building a robot that won first place in a science competition.
With Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson looking on, Johnson also told the students a story about one of his early experiments, mixing chemicals that make up rocket fuel. Johnson said he’d tried it at home on the kitchen stove, causing a fire that fortunately did not catch the house aflame. When he tried it at school, the police showed up and accused him of trying to blow up the school.
After the mixture was sent to a lab for testing, Johnson said it was confirmed to be rocket fuel.
“I was like, Wow! They analyzed it!” he said. “I said, ‘I told you it was rocket fuel.’ They said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. Looks like we’re going to have to change the charge from trying to blow up the school to arson.'”
Fortunately, no charges were brought, and Johnson can look back on the episode now as a step toward a career that includes more than 80 patents. Like any inventor, he ran into roadblocks, but Johnson’s advice to Williamson’s students was to not allow those roadblocks to stop you.
“It really is about perseverance,” he said. “It really is about, when you run into a problem, find a way around it. Don’t give up.”