Meet the NASA genius who invented the Super Soaker
© Johnson Research & Affiliates
It was the star of every kid's summer arsenal in the '90s, but the Super Soaker almost never made it further than a Pasadena bathroom. We ask inventor Lonnie Johnson how perseverance paid off.
Lonnie Johnson, the Alabama-born inventor of the Super Soaker, struggles to recall the first gizmo he ever created. It could've been the pressurised chinaberry shooter he made out of bamboo shoots with his dad or the lawnmower-engine-powered go-kart he made from junkyard scraps at the age of 13. Either way, he doesn't even know if he would’ve recognised it as 'invention' at the time – just a tendency to tinker. It was this tinkering, though, that would lead him to a brainwave that changed summer fun for good.
Since the very first Super Soaker hit toy store shelves in 1990, well over 200 million of the high-powered water guns have made their way into the hands of kids around the world. But for Johnson, the 'overnight sensation' actually emerged 10 years before.
"I was working as a systems engineer on the Galileo mission to Jupiter at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California" Johnson tells us. "But when I went home, I'd tinker with my own ideas, and one of the things I had an idea for was a new type of heat pump that used pressurised water in place of Freon (the stuff that makes aerosol sprays work).
"I was experimenting with the nozzles in my bathroom when I saw the stream of water, and I thought to myself, 'Geez, I should really put this hard science stuff to the side and do something fun and simple, like a toy'."
It wasn't until Johnson rejoined the US Air Force in 1982 that he decided to pursue it, however.
"I guess my family were pretty used to me doing stuff around the house. Once we'd settled into our new home in Omaha, Nebraska, that's when I really started working on my prototype," he recalls. "After a few weeks of making all the components and putting everything together, I was ready to do the first test – it worked really, really well. It was exactly like I'd envisioned.
"I gave it to my daughter, who would play with the kids in the neighbourhood. They couldn't get close to her," he laughs. "I would even take it to office functions and military picnics – it was a huge hit right away."
Without this proof of popularity, Johnson might've faltered. In fact, lesser inventors probably would have, given the hurdles that lay ahead. "Maybe it would've been smart to give up," Johnson smiles. "But that's the magic word: perseverance. I always knew it was a good product. I believed in it.
"At first I wanted to set up a toy company and manufacture the guns myself, but I soon found out it was going to take a lot more money than I had. The factory manager contacted me and indicated that the first thousand guns would cost about $200,000 to get off the production line. I said, okay, that's about $200 USD a water gun. Who's going to pay that? So I started looking for companies to license it to."
After numerous meetings with companies from 1982 through to 1989, Johnson finally found a good fit with Larami (later acquired by Hasbro). And once the wheels were in motion, the Super Soaker was on – and flying off – shelves within 12 months. The rest is history.
These days, that idea of perseverance is something Johnson keeps on coming back to. It's probably why he once spent a full year building a compressed-air-powered robot called the Linex from scrap metal, is now working on a new type of battery that can store more energy per size and weight than lithium ion batteries, and is in the midst of creating a new type of engine that could see us charging phones with body heat at some point in the near future.
"They're pretty far out ideas. Challenging, because they’re really pushing the envelope," Johnson says.
But somehow, without the challenge, we doubt they'd hold the same attraction. And at the seasoned age of 68, with the Super Soaker and multiple other inventions under his belt, Johnson still manages to make us feel that the best is yet to come.