Lonnie Johnson and the Invention of the Super Soaker

Lonnie Johnson Lonnie George Johnson was born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. His father, David Johnson, served in World War II. Together with his wife, Arline, they had six children. Johnson's father kick-started Lonnie's interest in tinkering when he gave Johnson a basic lesson in electricity and showed him how to repair basic home goods like irons and lamps. Johnson soon became known as The Professor amongst his boyhood friends and put together a go-kart engine from parts he found in a local scrapyard.

By his early teens, Lonnie aspired to be an engineer. Becoming an engineer was no easy feat for anyone, let alone for Lonnie, who was growing up African-American in the Deep South, in a country still facing serious racial disparities. In high school, he was told he did not have the skills to be an engineer, but Johnson did not abandon his dream. In his senior year he became the first student from his all-black high school to enter the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa's engineering fair. The fair took place only five years after the Governor of Alabama tried to block African-Americans from attending the university. Johnson won first prize, but university officials paid little attention to him.

After graduating from high school, Johnson won an Air Force ROTC scholarship and a math scholarship to Tuskegee University, a historically Black college. At college, Johnson was interested in advancing nuclear power and studied atomic fission and high pressure. He graduated in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master's in nuclear engineering. Johnson would later state that Tuskegee had provided him with excellent preparation to be an engineer.

Following graduation from Tuskegee in 1975, Johnson was called to active duty with the United States Air Force. Lonnie initially worked at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory, and in 1979 moved to California to work for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Johnson studied space launches that utilized nuclear power, and participated in the Galileo Mission that explored Jupiter.

Johnson continued to experiment and tinker after work. In 1982, while trying to develop a heat pump that utilized water instead of Freon, he was surprised at the powerful blast of water emitted. This moment marked the beginning of the Super Soaker. However, it would be several years before Johnson seriously developed the concept. During the 1980s, Johnson worked for the Air Force's Strategic Air Command (SAC), and worked on the B-2 Stealth Bomber program. In the evenings he worked on perfecting his water gun concept. In 1983, Johnson applied for a patent for his water gun idea. Initially, Johnson wished to manufacture the water gun himself, but realized he did not have the required startup capital. Johnson spent much of the 1980s searching for a partner to no avail. In 1989 Johnson left the Air Force to focus on developing his water gun.

In February 1989, Johnson attended the American International Toy Fair in New York, hoping to successfully pitch his water gun idea to a toy company. At the fair he met Al Davis, the Vice President of Larami Limited. While Davis seemed intrigued by Johnson's concept, he advised him to not make a special trip to Larami's headquarters to demonstrate his water gun concept. Despite Davis's lukewarm reception to Johnson at the fair, he decided to visit Philadelphia to pitch his product.

At a meeting with Larami's board Johnson demonstrated his water gun's power by knocking over coffee cups from across the boardroom. In an interview with the New York Times, Davis stated he'd never seen anything like it. Larami wished to sell Johnson's product for $10, and it took some effort to mass produce the water gun at that price point. Nevertheless, sometime between late 1989 or early 1990, Johnson's water gun was on toy store shelves and was called The Power Drencher. There is some discrepancy as to what date the water gun debuted, The New York Times reports an introduction of 1989, and BBC News reports 1990.

The Power Drencher sold well enough, but in 1991 Larami embarked on a rebranding of the Power Drencher and a TV blitz. The Power Drencher was renamed the alliterative Super Soaker, and Johnson appeared on the late night television program The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and demonstrated the Super Soaker 50. That summer, 20 million Super Soakers flew off toy store shelves, generating $200 million in sales, and the Super Soaker craze of the early 1990s began. Johnson said he remembered staring at his early royalty checks in what he described as disbelief.

Johnson continued to improve the Super Soaker brand with the development of the Super Soaker 100 and other newer and improved Super Soakers. With his share of the profits, Johnson founded the research firm Johnson Research and Development. In 2013, Johnson settled a lawsuit with Hasbro, the company that purchased Larami Limited, and received $73 million dollars in back royalty payments.

BBC News Magazine. August 15, 2016. Lonnie Johnson: The father of the Super Soaker
Broad, William in The New York Times. July 31, 2001. Rocket Science, Served Up Soggy
Ward, Lohan in The Atlantic. November 2010. Shooting for the Sun

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