The 5 traits of a great engineer

If you haven’t heard of Lonnie Johnson, you have heard of his most famous invention: the Super Soaker. Every engineer can learn from his incredible career in aerospace and beyond.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”  – President John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962

 Twelve-year-old Lonnie Johnson was fascinated by JFK’s now-legendary speech. The budding inventor would have no part in humanity’s giant leap on the lunar surface (“I’ll be real old by the end of the decade,” he lamented at the time). Still, the president’s words would inspire him throughout his engineering career—and it’s an inspirational career in its own right.

Johnson, now in his mid-seventies, has reached a level of success that most engineers can only dream of. He helped choose nuclear targets for the U.S. Air Force, designed critical spacecraft systems at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and holds more than 100 patents. Generations of children have cooled off in the summer with Johnson’s most famous creation, the Super Soaker, a pump-powered water gun that he invented by accident.

Lonnie Johnson. (Image: Ericsunphotography.)

Lonnie Johnson. (Image: Ericsunphotography.)

Yet Johnson is still inspired by those famous words he heard as a young boy in Mobile, Alabama, and he still chooses the hard problems. Johnson has spent decades developing two inventions at the helm of his own R&D company that could prove pivotal in solving humanity’s energy woes. Johnson took a long road to get where he is today, and every engineer can learn from his journey. His incredible career reveals what it takes to be a model engineer—and how the right mindset can make all the difference.

Engineering trait 1: Curiosity

The 1940 biopic Young Tom Edison depicts the inventor as a curious boy whose ambitious scientific experiments don’t always go as planned. Young Lonnie Johnson, a fan of the movie and the man, could relate.

There was the time he tried to mix his own rocket fuel in the family kitchen and nearly burned the house down. His mother got him a hot plate and told him to take his experiment outside. Another time, he scavenged the junkyard for parts to build a working engine, stuck it on a go-kart, and gleefully drove it until the police pulled him over. It wasn’t his last traffic stop. A police officer intercepted him again one day to ask why he had sheet metal on the back of his bicycle, so he brought the officer home to prove that it was, in fact, for the robot he was building. Johnson often enlisted siblings or other kids in the neighborhood to help him realize his far-fetched projects, and they gave him a nickname: the Professor.

Looking over his career, Johnson says there are three inventions he’s most proud of (though hesitantly; “It’s like asking what’s your favorite child,” he says). He created the first of these three at the ripe age of 18, and it took most of his senior year of high school to complete: a robot named Linex. Linex was a meter tall, moved on wheels, had two arms with joints that swiveled, a chest that stored a propane tank full of compressed air, a mechanical computer coding system, his brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder for memory, and a remote control made from his sister’s walkie talkie. Linex and its inventor won first place at the 1968 science fair held at the University of Alabama by the Junior Engineering Technical Society. A picture of the pair still hangs behind Johnson in his office today.

Linex the robot earned an 18-year-old Johnson first prize at a prominent science fair. (Image: Lonnie Johnson.)

Linex the robot earned an 18-year-old Johnson first prize at a prominent science fair. (Image: Lonnie Johnson.)

Despite his proven brilliance on its campus, the University of Alabama expressed no interest in Lonnie Johnson. Instead, Johnson got an Air Force scholarship to attend Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, a historically Black university where one of Johnson’s inventor idols, George Washington Carver, had taught and, upon his death in 1943, was buried.

In 1973, Johnson graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering and earned a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. That same year, he was called to active duty in the U.S. Air Force, where he studied nuclear-powered space launches for what would be known today as the Air Force Research Laboratory. (The AFRL was formed in 1997 to consolidate the Air Force’s disparate research departments). The work suited Johnson, and he was good at it—so good that he was invited to design the nuclear power system for NASA’s Galileo space probe, which set course for Jupiter on October 18, 1989.

It may not have been the moon landing, but Johnson had made his mark in cosmic exploration. In doing so, he perfectly demonstrated why engineers must always think for themselves.

Engineering trait 2: Independent thinking

Today, Lonnie Johnson runs his research lab, Johnson Research and Development, and oversees two spinoffs, Johnson Energy Storage and JTEC Energy. When asked what qualities he looks for when hiring engineers, Johnson has one answer.

“People who are difficult to manage,” he said, smiling but serious. “Independent thinkers.”

Even as a young engineer, Johnson never let naysaying colleagues deter him from pursuing solutions he believed in—one of which became the second of his favorite inventions.

The problem in question predated his arrival at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where he worked on the Galileo space probe mission. It was a big one: if the Galileo short-circuited and its memory lost power, the spacecraft would lose the ability to communicate with Earth. Johnson designed a novel isolation circuit to preserve the memory in case of a power loss, and he knew it was a great idea—even if he was the only one who did.

“When I came up with the idea, a lot of my fellow engineers pooh-poohed it and said it wouldn’t work,” Johnson recalls. Only after Johnson threatened to go home and build one in his garage did the team reluctantly give the idea a shot. Johnson, they soon realized, was right. His memory keep-alive system worked.

“I literally had people coming up and apologizing to me after the fact,” Johnson says. “And these were some of the hand-picked engineers in the country, as you can imagine, working on advanced space systems like that. And at that point, I felt that I had arrived. I really had become an engineer.”

Of course, even the most independent-minded engineer can only think as freely as his employer permits. Johnson learned that lesson during his second tour of duty with the Air Force, in which he was placed at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, serving the four-star general responsible for all three legs of the nuclear triad. Johnson recalls it as an “intense environment.”

“I can remember times when I would stick my head out of my door and look both ways before stepping into the hall because people would just be walking so fast,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, the military command center was not a place for independent thinkers. Johnson was doing critical work for his country, but the out-of-the-box thinker felt boxed in. Now that he commands his own engineers at Johnson R&D, he seeks out those who can challenge him with their opinions.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I value that pushback,” Johnson says. “Engineering is engineering. Reality is what works.”

Any engineer—or engineering manager—would do well to adopt the same mindset. But there’s more to being a great engineer than thinking for yourself. It’s the thought that counts, and Johnson, whose hero JFK’s words were etched into his brain, always thought big.

Engineering trait 3: Ambition

“Look for tough problems,” Johnson advises engineers young and old. “Those are the ones that make a difference.”

Johnson has easily found such problems. These days, he’s devoted to solving one of humanity’s most challenging problems: an energy and environmental crisis. More on that later. But Johnson’s ambition goes beyond engineering, and for the man who’d been so inspired as a boy by Young Tom Edison, perhaps the toughest problem of all was how to follow in Edison’s footsteps.

“I tell people I wanted to be an engineer before I knew what an engineer was,” Johnson said. “And I guess the same is true about being an independent inventor.”

Today, sitting in the head office of a research lab with his name on the door, Johnson is living his dream. But back in the early days of his career, the idea of being an independent inventor was just that: a dream. And it was treated with the same skepticism of his other wild ideas.

“I remember when I was in the Air Force talking to one of the scientists there, and I told him my goal was to be an independent inventor,” Johnson said. “And he looked at me and he shook his head and he says, those guys are like celebrities. You’ll never be an independent inventor.”

As with his memory keep-alive system for the Galileo space probe, Johnson didn’t need the validation of his peers to pursue what he knew was a good idea. Reality is what works, after all—and Johnson would first stumble towards the reality of being an independent inventor during his Galileo days.

Like many great inventions, the Super Soaker began as an accident. In Pasadena, Calif. in 1982, Johnson spent his days designing power systems bound for Jupiter. But he dedicated his nights to his own projects. This one was a refrigeration system that could use water as a working fluid rather than CFCs, which had recently been revealed as the cause of Earth’s depleting ozone layer. During one of his experiments, Johnson attached a nozzle he’d designed to his bathroom sink. Splash! A jet of water shot across the room. Johnson instantly saw the potential for a powerful toy water gun.

It might not have been the type of planet-saving invention Johnson would dedicate himself to in later years. Still, he knew a good idea when he had one. Johnson began working on a prototype pistol shortly after starting his second tour of Air Force duty in Omaha, making parts in his basement with a small lathe and milling machine. He gave the first-ever Super Soaker to his seven-year-old daughter, Aneka. As he watched her play with other kids on the airbase, it became clear that his water pistol was a success. “They couldn’t even get close to her with their little squirt guns,” Johnson wrote in a 2016 BBC article about his most famous invention.

Lonnie Johnson holds up his original Super Soaker prototype alongside a commercial version in a 2014 TEDx Talk. (Image: TEDx Talks.)

Lonnie Johnson holds up his original Super Soaker prototype alongside a commercial version in a 2014 TEDx Talk. (Image: TEDx Talks.)

That early trickle of success became a waterfall. Today, generations of kids worldwide have felt the thrill and splash of Johnson’s iconic invention. The Super Soaker has generated more than $1 billion in sales, and in 2015 it was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. The water gun ranks with Linex the robot and Galileo’s memory among Johnson’s favorite inventions.

But in 1982, Johnson’s journey with his homemade prototype was just beginning. He would learn that having a good idea is only the first step to success.

Engineering trait 4: Perseverance

An engineer who chooses to work on tough problems must be prepared to work. And work.

“Persevere,” Johnson says. “You can’t just coast along. You’ve got to persevere because some of the solutions will avail themselves over time.”

Johnson says unexpected obstacles are a given for any challenging problem. Expect roadblocks. To maneuver around them, engineers must understand the situation thoroughly. For the most demanding problems, there’s no roadmap.

Like when JFK committed to landing an American on the moon, such a project was uncharted territory. The engineering behind it wasn’t just hard; it had never been done before. The materials didn’t exist. The methods had yet to be developed. It was unknown after unknown. Many talented engineers persevered to realize that moonshot, not because it was easy but hard.

Johnson persevered for nearly a decade to bring the Super Soaker to market. He spent years refining his prototype and searching for a manufacturing partner, which he eventually found in the Larami Corporation. The toy first hit shops in 1990 as the Power Drencher, but it didn’t catch fire till the following year. After a name change and a big marketing push, 20 million Super Soakers were sold in 1991 alone.

“I remember just staring at my royalties cheque in disbelief,” Johnson wrote in his BBC article.

He wasted no time putting them to use. He used the money to start his own company, Johnson Research and Development, and finally realized his dream of being an independent inventor. At first, Johnson continued to focus on the Super Soaker, which spawned many models, and he also redesigned Nerf dart guns for Hasbro, which bought Larami in 1995. “I decided I wanted to be the king of all toy guns,” Johnson said. Another tough challenge, but one he was equal to: Johnson estimates that at one point, his inventions accounted for 80% of all the toy guns sold in the world.

Lonnie Johnson poses with one of the many models of his most famous invention, the Super Soaker. (Image: Lonnie Johnson.)

Lonnie Johnson poses with one of the many models of his most famous invention, the Super Soaker. (Image: Lonnie Johnson.)

The problems Johnson works on today are more formidable. One of them is a new type of engine to convert heat to electricity using electrochemical processes rather than mechanical parts. It’s called the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter, or JTEC, and he’s been working to make it a reality for over two decades. When he started, it was just an idea on a whiteboard. The physics made sense, in theory. The problem was that the materials to make it didn’t exist yet.

There are two types of engineering problems, Johnson says. Research engineering is the hard kind, where you have to solve a problem that no one has yet solved. (“Turning a vision into reality,” as Johnson puts it.) That was what NASA had to do to put a man on the moon and what Johnson faced when he had his vision for the JTEC. The second kind of engineering is what Johnson likes to call brute-force engineering, where you take existing systems and components and figure out how to put them together in novel ways.

JTEC may have started as a research engineering project, but after persevering for 20 years and founding a dedicated spinoff, JTEC Energy, in 2020, Johnson and his team have invented their way past the major roadblocks. All that’s left now is the brute-force engineering to turn it into a viable product. Johnson says JTEC Energy is due to deliver a 250-kilowatt unit by late 2026.

It’s a similar story for Johnson’s solid-state battery, which is being developed by another spinoff, Johnson Energy Storage. Solid-state batteries are safer and more energy-dense than the ubiquitous lithium-ion batteries used in everything from consumer electronics to electric vehicles. However, making them a reality has been a tough nut to crack. Many companies and researchers have pursued the tricky technology over the years, but perhaps none with as much dedication as Johnson.

“I started working on solid-state batteries back about 25 years ago, with the idea that the auto industry would realize that solid-state batteries were indeed the next thing beyond lithium-ion,” Johnson says. “And so I decided to develop this technology, and this again was a situation where the materials that I needed to make this work didn’t exist.”

After so many years of evaluating “just about every material you could think of,” Johnson and his team finally hit upon a glass electrolyte for solid-state batteries that they believe will become the industry standard. Johnson Energy Storage is already making early sales, and Johnson is confident his long years of labor will pay off: “It will be a game changer.”

It took Johnson more than two decades to develop a solid-state battery. Still, he believes his perseverance will pay off. (Image: Johnson Energy Storage.)

It took Johnson more than two decades to develop a solid-state battery. Still, he believes his perseverance will pay off. (Image: Johnson Energy Storage.)

Why stick with a project for so long? Johnson isn’t short on other ideas. He’s also working on desalination technology to combat freshwater scarcity and hints at plans for an ambient power generator for remote sensors, both of which are examples of brute-force engineering. Johnson has stuck it out for decades on big problems like JTEC and solid-state batteries because he believes in them—not for the profit that may pour in but because of their potential to benefit the planet and its people.

“The transition to renewable energy sources, in my mind, represents one of the greatest challenges facing the human race, and I’m working on two technologies that I believe will help to contribute toward a solution,” Johnson said in a 2014 TEDx Talk on his energy inventions.

Engineering trait 5: Leadership

“He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”

– Epitaph on the tombstone of George Washington Carver, buried in 1943 at Tuskegee University

As a budding inventor, Johnson was inspired by some of the greats: Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington Carver. When asked who he thought was a contemporary role model for the coming generation of engineers, he brought up Elon Musk—though he was quick to describe his “disconnect” with Musk’s values and priorities, a polite way of alluding to the Tesla CEO’s rocky public persona.

A better answer, and one that he’s too modest to give, is Johnson himself. Like Musk, he’s pursuing challenging energy projects to help humanity avoid climate catastrophe. Unlike Musk, whose endeavors are increasingly overshadowed by ego, Johnson always puts engineering first. When he gives speeches or grants interviews, it’s not for clout and fame. Instead, he sees it as an important step in passing the torch.

“I was content for a long time just doing my thing,” he says. Despite a discomfort with public appearances, he’s now made many, and for a good reason. “We need our youth to be motivated. We need to inspire people to pursue their dreams. And so, in that sense, I’ve become a role model, and I take that sense of responsibility.”

He’s done more than talk. In 2005, Johnson helped launch a robotics program for underserved youth in Atlanta, housing it in his company’s downtown facility. The program was a hit year after year. In 2017, it became an official non-profit called the Johnson STEM Activity Center that teaches thousands of young inventors about robotics, coding, virtual reality and more.

A group of students at the Johnson STEM Activity Center in Atlanta, Georgia. (Image: Johnson STEM Activity Center.)

A group of students at the Johnson STEM Activity Center in Atlanta, Georgia. (Image: Johnson STEM Activity Center.)

Johnson has also learned to be an effective leader at his own companies.

Although he prizes independence of thought, he understands that solving the most demanding problems means working together.

“I’ve got projects that are bigger than I’ll ever succeed in doing by myself. So, I think one of my strengths at this point is the ability to delegate. My idea of success as an inventor is to see an idea take on a life of its own and become all it can be,” Johnson says.

What it means to be an engineer has changed over the decades of Johnson’s impressive career, and it’s still changing. Johnson is wowed by the implications of artificial intelligence, for one thing, suspecting that its impact on humanity could be phenomenal. Even without AI, Johnson says engineering has reached a “higher level of sophistication” thanks to the development of engineering tools for design and simulation.

However, some aspects of engineering have remained the same. Whether using a pencil and slide rule or an AI-enabled supercomputer, the best engineers share a few common traits. They must be curious about the world around them and how it works. They must be independent thinkers, trusting their knowledge and letting reality grade their work. They must have the ambition to tackle hard problems and the perseverance to solve them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they must accept responsibility for their inventions and their outsized role in leading the future.

In short, to be a better engineer, try to be more like Lonnie Johnson. And remember to have a little fun along the way.

(Image: BBC.)

(Image: BBC.)
Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.