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Lonnie Johnson: My Life as a Curious Inventor

"Inventing really does come down to perseverance, doing the hard work of identifying the problems, solving the problems, and then moving onto the next step.”

Lonnie Johnson, inventor

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He’s the inventor of the Super Soaker, the father of the Nerf N-Strike dart gun, and worked on NASA’s Galileo, Voyager and Cassini space programs.

He is developing a new type of engine without any moving parts that can convert heat directly into electricity, as well as a solid state battery using a glass electrolyte instead of a liquid. He has two engineering degrees and over 100 patents protecting an amazing variety of inventions.

He’s a really nice guy, too. He’s Lonnie Johnson, one of America’s most prolific and successful inventors.

Lonnie combines boundless curiosity and relentless determination and commitment. In 40 years of inventing, he’s leveraged these attributes to make outsized contributions to our society, whether it was learning more about the solar system or giving kids diversion during their summer vacations. After his captivating keynote at our recent IPforward 2017 conference, we sat down with Lonnie to discuss life as an innovator, his approach to problem solving, and his advice when aspiring inventors ask him about the secrets to inventing success. 

Lonnie Johnson, American inventor

(Image: Lonnie Johnson speaking at IPforward 2017 about his life as an inventor)

IPfolio: Although "My Life as a Curious Inventor" could work as an autobiography title, how do you describe yourself? As a scientist, or an inventor, or a scientist who invents, or something else?

Lonnie: Well, I kind of think of myself as an inventor. I've been an inventor since as far back as I could remember. Even as a small kid, I was always tinkering, making and inventing stuff. As I grew up and went to school, I learned more about the mechanics of engineering, technology, and the scientific tools available to create and make things. It allowed me as a engineer to be a more effective inventor. 

Are there any ideas that you've had that you didn't pursue but someone else did and developed them later that were commercially successful?

One of the ideas was a base technology for CDs and DVDs that I patented in 1979. It was a digital distance measuring instrument. It’s a device that used a magnifying lens and an optical sensor to read a binary code and scale where the scale had been photographically reduced.

At the time, I was working on the Voyager project. I was enjoying my day job so inventing was more or less a hobby. I actually thought at the time when I got the patent, "Well, here's a better mousetrap. The world's going to beat a path to my door." Of course, it didn't happen that way. There's more to it than just coming up with the idea. You really have to do the legwork of commercializing, get people interested, and get them to understand the invention’s significance.

Voyager Spacecraft.jpg

(Image: Artist rendering of Voyager spacecraft en route to Tatooine)

What's your invention process? Do ideas, whether as problems to solve or solutions to problems, just come into your head. Has this changed in the 40 years or more that you've been working?

I think inventing comes from inspiration. Inspiration can come in various forms. It can come because there's a challenging problem, there's a need to solve it that could be a source of inspiration. I can also be like, "Well, jeez, it would be great if you could do something that's different from what was done in the past."

I think everybody's an inventor. Everybody's creative. Everybody has ideas. The difference is being able to follow through and actually focus on it and make it become a reality. It takes inspiration and determination to make that happen, so the perseverance part is really what counts. 

What distinguishes inventors with a couple of inventions from the super prolific variety like yourself? Is it an enduring curiosity that you have to satisfy?

I see it as a challenge to be able to work in various fields. For example, there are people who have spent their entire careers in the toy industry developing toys, but there are few who've had the success that I had because I came in from the outside.

Sometimes it's to your advantage to not be of the culture or be as close to the problem as some others. You can look at things differently when you're outside the box.

What role does potential financial reward play in choosing or prioritizing what you pursue?

Financial rewards are very important. With them, you get to pursue other things that you have in mind to do. For example, one of the key things that enables me to do what I do now is past success. My income comes from past inventions that I've created and receive royalties on. Neither my company nor I receive income from what I'm working on presently.

What I'm working on at present becomes a challenge to continue to press forward with. There's always a challenge or balancing, you know. "How much of my nest egg do I apply against this particular project? Is pursuing my passion going to get me in trouble or not?" It's a constant challenge that I struggle with.

Aspiring inventors undoubtedly approach you for advice. What are the most common questions they have and what are your answers?

The most common is, “How do I get my idea commercialized?” My advice is that there's no magic solution. It really does come down to perseverance, doing the hard work of identifying the problems, solving the problems, and then moving onto the next step.

You don't know what the challenges are until you start getting into it and slugging it out. I tell them they need to get some kind of protection, a patent application. When you talk to people, get a confidentiality agreement so that you can have some documentation that you disclosed your idea in confidence.

The other challenge that I warn them about is that generally it'll be tough to find someone who's willing to invest because it's new. It's your idea. They don't have your vision. If it's something technical, they have the resources but they may not have the technical background to understand it. That'll make them less comfortable.

It's a challenge in getting entities with the resources merged with the idea or innovation to the point where there's enough appreciation to really do the deep dive and make it a reality. The best thing you could do is get a prototype to show what it is and how it works, and, of course, be able to make a strong case in terms of its potential commercial impact.

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“Inventing is me doing my thing.”

Lonnie Johnson, inventor

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You've met lots of inventors. Have you found common characteristics to them and obviously characteristics that you would share as well?

As I stated earlier, everybody's an inventor. Everybody has an idea. Everybody! It’s a human characteristic to be able to create and solve problems. The challenge is being able to pursue, follow through, focus, and make the personal sacrifices necessary to make the reality happen and your vision the reality.

Do you think inventors are born or formed through circumstance or environment or even necessity? The TV show MacGyver is a classic example of necessity driving the need for creative problem-solving?

Whether or not inventors are born or whether they're created by circumstance, I think it's the combination of the gifts we’re born with. Some strengths could be running fast or having a beautiful voice. Another strength could be the ability to envision mechanical things with moving parts and be able to see an entire machine visually before it becomes reality. Muhammad Ali was a great fighter. He had a natural gift and the will to endure the training and hardship necessary to make that gift a reality.

One of the things that America offers is the ability for people to pursue their dreams. If you have a vision of yourself as being able to accomplish something, then that vision will have a seed in some success that you had experienced. Perhaps as a small child or an older person, you most likely experienced something that gave you confidence that this is something that you can do. You pursue it. You put your heart into it. For me, inventing is me doing my thing. 

During your travels, have you found that there are cultures, communities, or geographic regions that are more supportive of invention? What do you think made them more open to this?

I think that culture does have an impact. At the same time, I think it would be very naïve for any particular culture or country or race to assume that they have a lock or an advantage in intellectual capability. I think that each culture has strengths.

Here in the US, we have a very unstructured scenario in terms of people being able to pursue their dreams and pursue their passions. On the other hand, things are more prescribed, and structured in communist or dictatorship countries. Those systems attempt to identify people who have more intellectual capability, and nurture that, and have them prosper for the good of the country. They're two different aspects of the same challenge.

You want those people who have the ability to surface to the top so they can provide their skills and abilities to improve the quality of life. The challenge is who's going to be passionate about what they do.

How do you get the inspiration in place that causes them to do all that they are capable of doing? In the US, we choose directions based on debate and discourse. Different people have different opinions, and we go back and forth. In another country like a dictatorship, for example, the leadership may decide, "We're going to go in this direction. Here's a five-year plan." Boom, it happens, and you move in that direction.

There are advantages and strengths in both approaches. We need to bring all resources to bear, particularly, if we're going to remain competitive in the world going forward given the extent to which other countries are educating their people, lifting their people out of poverty, and improving their quality of life. 

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“One of the biggest challenges for inventors is to capture the imagination of those with the resources to make your idea a reality.”

Lonnie Johnson, inventor

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American Inventor Lonnie Johnson.jpg

(Image: Lonnie Johnson, American inventor and innovator)

What do you think should be the role of government in supporting inventors and innovation?

I think the government’s role is very crucial. One of the challenges that I have as a small company is trying to develop innovative and out-of-the-box kind of things, is bringing the resources to bear to make those things or ideas a reality. It's a challenge. The government helps.

My success, though, with the government has been less than optimal. It's unfortunately understandable because when the government comes out and says, "We're going to offer a grant for someone who can come up with some innovative solution to this problem," there are a lot of people who come up with ideas and submit proposals.

The government says, "Okay. Well, we're going to solicit proposals, but they have to address this and that and have this number of pages." All of a sudden, this lengthy process requires you to put a lot of resources into submitting a proposal to do some R&D. You think, "Well, maybe I can use those resources to actually do the R&D itself as opposed to spending them submitting proposals and trying to compete with other people."

It's a challenge, but you face the same thing when you go out for venture capital. You've got to have your act together to a point where you can convince someone that this is something worth investing in. One of the biggest challenges for inventors is to capture the imagination of those with the resources to make your idea a reality. 

What's the role of IP in invention?

Intellectual property or intellectual insight is extremely important. I cannot overstate the importance of having intellectual property protection. Everything we do, whether the intellectual property is owned by someone or in the public domain, is still intelligence, intellect in terms of knowing how to implement a solution to a problem.

Owning it and being able to commercialize it is also important. If you come up with an idea and you start commercializing your product, you don’t want someone coming in with more resources than you and saying, "Hey, I can do that and make money at it. You've already proven that I can make money at it, I'm going to make this product, too." It was your idea but all of a sudden you're left out of the picture.

I think intellectual property becomes a source of inspiration. It's a solution. Because now if I can create it, I can own it and control it. I can profit from it. It motivates you to really put in the effort to make it a reality. 

I’ll give you a Super Soaker example. I had a patent on the Super Soaker before I talked to the toy companies. Because of it, they took me more seriously. We were able to commercialize it. In the first year, all of a sudden other toy companies started making the product. Because of the patent, we were able to take them to court and stop them.

It took them a few years to find their way around the patents, but by that time we had established our product in the marketplace. The patent allowed us to establish Super Soaker the brand based on the technology. With the branding, which is course intellectual property as well, we were able to control the market and remain dominant. I think intellectual property is extremely important.

Super Soaker-Patent-IPfolio.com.jpg

(Image: Patent drawing from Lonnie's US Patent 4,591,071 Squirt Gun)

Our final question covers how to support and encourage innovation. Donald Trump won a lot of support in economically ravaged regions desperate for a brighter tomorrow. What economically, culturally, educationally changes could be made there to create it?

One of the most challenging things that we face going forward is the impact of technology on society. We have been experiencing it from day one and will continue to experience it. I think it will be even more dramatic going forward because technology is moving forward so fast. In reality, in areas like Appalachia and other places where people relied on coal mining or factory assembly lines, a lot of the things that they've done in the past won't exist in the future. Those jobs will be automated and taken over by technology.

One of the challenges that we will face in society is our technology gets smarter and smarter. It’s  increasingly capable of doing a lot of things that we human beings have normally done. How do we deal with that from a social perspective and human responsibility perspective for our fellow human being?

The jobs won't exist, but the wealth will, because we will have machines creating the wealth. These machines could be the new labor force if you will. We will have this new labor force whose economic support requirements are much lower than what would be required for a human equivalent. What will we do in terms of supporting society and supporting people? How do we distribute the wealth that comes from all of that prosperity that's going to exist? Will just a few people have it and everybody else will be poor because they can't find a job? I don't think we're going to find that socially acceptable.

There are challenges that we'll face going forward. One of the things that we can do is prepare people for those changes so that we're not caught flat-footed the way we have been recently with people losing their jobs and experiencing economic hardships.

One of the things you don't want to do is abandon technology, abandon progress because of concern about people losing their jobs. Other countries are not going to do that. We're in a competitive world. The future is going to advance. Energy technology is an example. Whoever controls the next generation of energy production is going to be the world leader.

We don't want to just acquiesce to that leadership position. We have to aggressively pursue advanced technology, but we also need to do it in a way where we can be socially responsible and understand what it's going to take to support the general population in a meaningful way.

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We’d like to send a huge thanks to Lonnie for his perspective and advice. He clearly understands the big picture of innovation and the upsides and downsides of a future where technology will be increasingly disruptive. If you’d like to learn more about his green tech work, his 2014 TedX Atlanta video is a great place to start.

The Super Soaker is just one example of how innovation is found in everyday life. We celebrated summer's most enjoyable water gun and other inventions in The IP of the Fourth of July.

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