April 9 – National Inventor’s Month

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About the Holiday

Today’s holiday was established by the United Inventors Association of the USA, the Academy of Applied Science, and Inventor’s Digest Magazine to promote awareness of and celebrate the achievements of those creative individuals who make our lives better—or, in some cases, at least interesting. Every day there are kids and adults, professionals and amateurs pondering solutions to problems and just “what ifs?” Would you like to join them? You can celebrate this month by acting on one of your great ideas and by learning more about inventors like the subject of today’s book!

WHOOSH! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions

Written by Chris Barton | Illustrated by Don Tate

 

Lonnie Johnson had a way with stuff. In his hands bolts and screws, gears and springs, spools, clothespins, “spare parts his dad let him bring in from the shed, and various other things he’d hauled back from the junkyard” fueled Lonnie’s ideas for inventions and rocket ships. The kids at school loved to watch him launch the rockets he’d devised on the playground. Lonnie wanted to have a career as an engineer. Getting there took a lot of determination and courage. Once, the results of a standardized test said that he would not make a good engineer. Lonnie felt discouraged, but he knew that the person who had graded his test didn’t know him—or Linex.

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Image copyright Don Tate, courtesy of charlesbridge.com

Linex was the robot Lonnie had built from scrap metal. “Compressed–air cylinders and valves allowed Linex’s body to turn and its arms to move. The switches came from an old, broken jukebox. Lonnie used a tape recorder to program Linex, and as a bonus the reels looked like eyes.” Lonnie’s goal was to enter Linex in a science fair, but first he wanted to be able to program it. It took several years before he discovered how. Using his little sister’s walkie-talkie, Lonnie solved the problem and took Linex to the “1968 science fair at the University of Alabama—where only five years earlier, African American students hadn’t even been allowed.” Lonnie’s team won first place.

Lonnie went to college at Tuskegee Institute, where he realized his dream of becoming an engineer. His career “took him beyond Alabama—way beyond.”  He went to work for NASA. Before the orbiter Galileo could be sent to Jupiter, Lonnie developed a system that would ensure the craft would have a constant supply of power for its computer memory in case the main power was lost. Some fellow scientists doubted his idea would work, but it did. “As it photographed Jupiter and its moons, Galileo was supported by the power package that Lonnie designed.”

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Image copyright Don Tate, courtesy of charlesbridge.com

Even though Lonnie worked for NASA, he continued tinkering with his own ideas—in his own workshop. One problem he was trying to solve involved the need for the world’s refrigerators and air conditioners to have a cooling system that didn’t use the damaging chemical R-12. “He had an idea for using water and air pressure instead.” He built a prototype and experimented with it in his bathroom sink. When he turned his pump and nozzle on, though, he got a surprise as a stream of water blasted across the room.

Suddenly, Lonnie saw another use for his invention—as a water gun. He created a design small enough for children’s hands, and tested it at a picnic, where it was a hit. Lonnie took his idea to a toy company…and another…and another. Finally one company agreed to make his water gun. Spurred on by this success, Lonnie found investors to help him build other original inventions: “a water-propelled toy airplane, two kinds of engines, and his cooling system” that had led to the water gun. He even quit his day job to devote his time to inventing.

But things don’t always work out. Each project fell through—even the water gun. It was a scary time as he and his family had to move out of their house and into an apartment. But Lonnie believed in himself. He took his water gun to another toy company. In 1989 he found a toy company willing to take a look. Lonnie made the trip to Philadelphia and wowed the executives with his invention.

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Image copyright Don Tate, courtesy of charlesbridge.com

Now kids everywhere enjoy the fun of the Super Soaker. Today, Lonnie can be found in his workshop doing what he loves: “facing challenges, solving problems and building things” because “his ideas just keep on flowing.”

Chris Barton’s biography of Lonnie Johnson is a fascinating look at a man who succeeds in turning “No” into “Yes” by the power of his intelligence, ideas, and determination. Kids will love hearing about how one of their favorite toys came to be and will be inspired to chase their own dreams despite challenges and setbacks. Barton’s detailed narration provides a full picture of Lonnie Johnson and his times, specifics that attract and inform like-minded kids. Including the results of Lonnie’s exam should encourage kids who think differently. The story is enhanced by the conversational tone that makes it accessible to kids of all ages.

Don Tate illuminates Lonnie Johnson’s life story with his bold, full-bleed paintings that follow Lonnie from his being a child with big ideas to becoming a man who has seen these ideas through to success. With an eyebrow raised in concentration, young Lonnie demonstrates confidence and skill as he works on an invention, and kids will love seeing the tools of his trade laid out on the kitchen table. With his eyes narrowed in frustration and disappointment, Lonnie reads the results of his childhood exam. As Lonnie grows older and designs systems for NASA, the illustrations depict the schematics of the Galileo power package and Lonnie’s surprise at the strength of the water stream in his prototype cooling design. As all kids know, the spurt of a Super Soaker is awesome, and this fact is demonstrated in a “Wowing” fold-out page.

WHOOSH! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions is a welcome biography of the man who designs systems for the greater world but has never lost his youthful enthusiasm to invent.

Ages 5 – 10

Charlesbridge, 2016 | ISBN 978-1580892971

Check out more fiction and nonfiction books by Chris Barton on his website!

Discover more books written and illustrated by Don Tate as well as a portfolio of his work and book-related activity guides on his website!

National Inventor’s Month Activity

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Invention Dot-to-Dot Puzzles

 

Many inventions have changed the world and continue to be used long after they were first created. Connect the dots on these printable puzzles to discover three remarkable inventions!

Invention Dot-to-Dot 1 | Invention Dot-to-Dot 2 | Invention Dot-to-Dot 3

Picture Book Review

April 18 – It’s National Inventor’s Month

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires picture book review

About the Holiday

Perhaps April was chosen as Inventor’s Month because the blossoms of early spring echo the flourish of ideas that come from fertile minds. This month honors all the men and women throughout history who dared to think differently and changed the world. Today, that proud tradition continues in the excitement of school labs and classrooms, through online courses and computer technology, and in private homes where people of all ages are pondering and creating the next big thing. If you have a knack for innovation or invention, take time to sit down and work on your ideas today.

The Most Magnificent Thing

By Ashley Spires

 

A little pony-tailed girl and her puppy do everything together. They race, eat, explore, and relax. When she makes things, her best friend unmakes them. One day the girl has a brilliant idea—she is going to make “the most MAGNIFICENT thing!” In her mind it’s going to be “easy-peasy.” She knows exactly how it will look and how it will work.

With her faithful assistant following at her heels, the girl gathers materials and goes to work on the sidewalk outside her home. The girl “tinkers and hammers and measures” while her assistant “pounces and growls and chews.” When the little invention is finished, they stand back to examine it. Hmmm…it doesn’t look quite right. It doesn’t feel quite right either. In fact it is all wrong! The girl tries again.

She “smooths and wrenches and fiddles” while her assistant “circles and tugs and wags.” It still turns out wrong. Determined to make her vision reality, she gives it another go…and another…and another. She makes her invention different shapes, gives it various textures, measures out assorted sizes. One attempt even smells like stinky cheese! But none of these creations are MAGNIFICENT.

People stop by and offer encouraging—even admiring—remarks, but the little girl just gets mad. Can’t they see how wrong her invention is? In her anger the little girl works at a fevered pitch, shoving parts together, her brain fogged by “all the not-right things.” In her haste she hurts her finger. This is the last straw. She explodes and declares that she QUITS!

The ever-watchful assistant suggests a bit of fresh air. The girl takes her puppy for a walk and at first her feelings of defeat stay with her. Little by little, though, she pays attention to the world around her and her mind clears. Coming home, she encounters all the wrong things she has made lined up on the sidewalk. Her disappointment threatens to return, but then she notices something surprising—there are parts of each iteration that she likes!

After studying each earlier attempt, she knows just what to do! Slowly and carefully she once more begins to tinker. At the end of the day she and her assistant stand back to look. The machine may lean a bit, and be a little heavy, and it may need a coat of paint…but as the girl and her puppy climb aboard, they both agree that “it really is THE MOST MAGNIFICENT THING!”

You are never too young or too old for Ashley Spires’ inspiring and inspired story. The journey from idea to realization—so often fraught with disaster (or apparent disaster)—is depicted here honestly and with humor as the on-going process it is. Step-by-step the little girl thinks, gathers materials, tinkers, discovers, tinkers some more, and triumphs. It is this last step that is so “magnificently” presented—it’s only by not giving up that success can be achieved.

Spires’ tale is a delight of language—the girl “smooths, wrenches, fiddles, twists, tweaks, and fastens, pummels, jams, and smashes.” Likewise, her illustrations wonderfully depict the changing emotions of this thoughtful, steely-eyed, shocked, and ultimately thrilled young inventor. Her faithful puppy is a charming companion and foil, and kids will love examining the early inventions that lead up to the final product.

The Most Magnificent Thing is a fabulous book to keep on any child’s or adult’s bookshelf for those times when inspiration hits but achievement seems elusive.

Ages 3 – 7 and up (creative types of all ages will enjoy this book)

Kids Can Press, 2014 | ISBN 978-155453704

National Inventor’s Month Activity

CPB - Inventor's Tool Kit II (2)

Inventor’s Tool Kit

 

Every idea begins as a jumble of seemingly unrelated parts. Gathering whatever types of material inspires you and keeping it in a box ready to go when inspiration hits is a great way to support innovation and spark experimentation.

Supplies

  • Small parts organizer with drawers or compartments, available at hardware stores and craft stores
  • A variety of parts or craft materials that can be combined, built with, or built on
  • Some hardware ideas—pulleys, wheels, small to medium pieces of wood, wire, nuts, bolts, screws, hooks, knobs, hinges, recyclable materials
  • Some craft ideas—clay, beads, wooden pieces, sticks, paints, pipe cleaners, string, spools, buttons, glitter, scraps of material, recyclable materials

Directions

  1. Fill the organizer with the materials of your choice
  2. Let your imagination go to work! Build something cool, crazy, silly, useful—Amazing!