5 exciting inventions by Alabamians, including the Super Soaker

Alabama Inventions
Lonnie Johnson (right), Alabama native and inventor of the Super Soaker. Photo via Lonnie Johnson’s website

It’s no secret that Alabamians are creative, innovative and always thinking about the next big thing. In fact, Alabama natives have been behind some incredible inventions that you use in your day-to-day life. We picked out five Alabama inventors and their pioneering inventions to share.

1. Mary Anderson — The Windshield Wiper

Mary Anderson
Mary Anderson, an Alabama native who invented the windshield wiper. Photo via BhamWiki

The next time you flick on your windshield wipers, remember to think Alabama native Mary Anderson. Born in Greene County, Mary Anderson spent her childhood in Birmingham and worked as a real estate developer, building the Fairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue.

Mary Anderson
Mary Anderson’s patent for the windshield wiper. Photo via the United States Patent and Trademark Office

During a trip to New York City in 1903, Mary Anderson noticed that her trolley driver was having trouble seeing from the from windshield due to rain and sleet. Once she returned to Alabama, she helped design and secure a patent for the first windshield wiper. After her patent expired in 1920, car manufacturers such as Cadillac began implementing her design on all standard cars.

2. Lonnie Johnson — Super Soaker

Alabama Inventions
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker (among other inventions). Photo via Lonnie Johnson’s website

Mobile, Alabama native Lonnie Johnson is a former Air Force and NASA engineer who holds over 100 patents. But the entrepreneur is known for his invention of one of the best-selling toys in the world—the Super Soaker.

In the late 1980s, Lonnie Johnson formed his own engineering firm and began selling his Super Soaker invention through a toy manufacturer. By 1991, the Super Soaker generated more than $200M in sales!

3. Percy Julian — Arthritis Treatment

Alabama Inventions
Percy Julian, who helped pioneer arthritis medication. Photo via DePauw University

In the Jim Crow Era, Montgomery native Percy Julian worked hard to further his education and create a better life for himself and others. He graduated from DePauw University, earned a Master’s degree at Harvard and secured his Doctorate from the University of Vienna. In fact, Percy Julian was one of the first African-Americans to receive a Ph.D in Chemistry.

After returning to the States, Percy Julian started his own company to start synthesizing chemicals. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone, which is now used to help alleviate the effects of arthritis. During his lifetime, Percy Julian receive upwards of 130 patents!

4. George F. Kirchoff, Jr. — Airbag

Alabama Inventions
George F. Kirchoff, Jr. testing an airbag he designed. Photo via the Mobile Bay Mag

Mary Anderson wasn’t the only Alabamian to improve car safety. Jefferson County native George F. Kirchoff, Jr. helped design rockets and rocket engines for aerospace applications, but was laid off in the 1970s. He then moved his attention and engineering skills towards the development of a safe and effective airbag for motor vehicles. Utilizing his knowledge of rocket propellants, Kirchoff developed a system that inflated the airbag in a matter of milliseconds.

Airbags starting becoming common in cars in the 1980s, and were made mandatory in all new vehicle sales by the United States in 1998. Since their introduction, airbags have undoubtedly saved thousands of lives.

5. Waldo Semon — Vinyl

Alabama Inventions
Waldo Semon, who I have to thank for all of my favorite vinyl records. Photo via Washington University Chemical Engineering Department

Any other fans of vinyl records out there? If you love collecting vintage records like me, make sure to thank Demopolis native Waldo Semon the next time you spin your favorite LP. In the 1920s, Waldo Semon and the B.F. Goodrich company discovered the formula for polyvinyl chloride (vinyl) by mixing several synthetic polymers.

Alabama Inventions
My cat, interested in a vinyl 45RPM single. Photo via Nathan Watson for The Bama Buzz

Before then, phonograph records were made using shellac, a tough and somewhat brittle resin from female lac bugs. Compared to shellac, vinyl was more durable and offered reduced surface noise (or hiss). Starting in the 1940s, record companies began pressing their albums onto Waldo Semon’s vinyl formula.

These are just a few of the amazing inventions from Alabama innovators! Tag @thebamabuzz to let us know who we left off the list!

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Nathan Watson
Tennessee native who fell in love with Birmingham during college. Graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 2019. Passionate about Birmingham and its continued growth.
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