The tale of NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson and the Super Soaker is one of intelligence, perseverance, and creativity. And who knew the iconic sibling-drencher was invented by accident?!
Lonnie Johnson’s story
Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949 to parents who supported his ambitions to find out how things worked. Even as a kid, he played with rockets (and nearly burned down the house trying to make rocket fuel on the stove one day).
By the time he was in high school, he was trying to build his own robots. Despite going to a segregated school, he found ways to excel in the sciences and won a 1968 science fair for a robot created out of scrap metal. However, despite the attention that would have normally earned a young inventor, the University of Alabama showed no interest in admitting a Black student. So Johnson attended Tuskegee University, graduating in 1975 with a degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering on an ROTC scholarship.
After university, Johnson joined the Air Force, and during his service he received his first patent for a “Digital Distance Measuring Instrument.” According to Biography.com (cited below): “Simply put, it was an early version of DVD-reading technology, an innovation he later called “’he big fish that got away’ because he did not pursue it further.”
Lonnie Johnson’s accidental invention of the Super Soaker
In 1979, Johnson was recruited by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In addition to his illustrious career in engineering (he was part of NASA’s Galileo mission that sent an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter), he’ll likely be remembered for an invention that was largely an accident.
One day he was experimenting with new ideas for a refrigeration system that could use water instead of freon (which is hazardous). He happened to be in the bathroom at the time and hooked up a nozzle to the bathroom sink, accidentally shooting water across the room.
That’s when he realized it would make a great water gun toy. But it would be years before that toy would make it to shelves because Johnson rejoined the Air Force to help build B-52 stealth bombers in Nebraska.
The birth of the Super Soaker
At night, Johnson would work on his water gun, giving the first prototype to his 7-year-old daughter, Aneka. She quickly became the hit of the Air Force base with her new toy and Johnson knew it would do well in stores.
He was originally quoted $200K for the manufacturing of the first 1000 toys, which was more than he could afford. That meant he had to find a partner.
Biography.com explains that it was a company called Larami that helped Johnson launch the Super Soaker: “Larami put the first line of the gun, then known as the Power Drencher, on shelves in 1990. It was an instant hit, and after it was redesigned and rebranded Super Soaker the next year, sales went through the roof, with more than two million units sold in the summer of 1991.” — WTF fun facts