NASA Spacecraft Engineer Invented the Super Soaker & Made the '90s a Totally Awesome Decade for Kids
Back in the ‘90s, almost every kid on the playground had a Super Soaker. Teams were assembled, rules were laid down, and strategies were put into action. Whether it was a spontaneous event or a battle planned weeks in advance, an effective water blasting machine could either make or break your day. Victory was not attained by staying neutral. Friends became enemies, and enemies became friends, but everyone was soaked.
Few things are emblematic of the time as the iconic manually-pressurized water gun. Which is why it may surprise some to know that it was in fact a serendipitous invention. It was the brain-child of part-time inventor Lonnie Johnson, a spacecraft systems engineer, who came up with the idea for the toy while tinkering with a new type of heat pump for refrigerators and air conditioners during his spare time in 1982.
At the time, Johnson was working on the Galileo and Cassini satellite programs out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and was preparing to take on a new role, as the first engineer from the Strategic Air Command assigned to test the B-2 Bomber, the Stealth Bomber, for the Air Force. This, of course, means that it did take a rocket scientist to come up with the world’s most awesome water gun.
Wanting to use a working fluid that was environmentally friendly, he chose water instead of Freon. He was “machining some nozzles and experimenting at home” when he “shot some streams of water into the sink.” Then he shot a bit more across the bathroom where he was doing these experiments and thought: “Geez, this would make a neat water gun.” If it worked, he’d “put the hard science stuff behind and start working on some really fun stuff.”
But a water gun is not an iconic brand. It would take eight more years to elevate Johnson’s invention into a cultural staple. Following in the footsteps of the great inventors before him, he built a prototype. One advantage of being an inventor is having an abundance of spare parts. Using what he had lying around and making additional pieces on a small lathe and milling machine at his in-house workshop, Johnson made his first attempt at a small plastic water gun.
Like any good father, he gave the plastic prototype to his seven-year-old daughter, which proved to be a great success with her friends at the air base. Encouraged by the results, he made a few adjustments to his original design and tried again. Once he became convinced that he was on the right track, he decided to make it official. Johnson received U.S. Patent 4,591,071 for his “Squirt Gun” in 1986. A part of it reads as follows:
“The squirt gun includes a nozzle for ejecting water at high velocity, a pressurization pump for compressing air into the gun to pressurize water contained therein, and a trigger actuated flow control valve for shooting the gun by controlling flow of pressurized water through the nozzle. A battery powered oscillator circuit and a water flow powered sound generator produce futuristic space ray gun sound effects when the gun is shooting.”
Though Johnson originally wanted to produce the toy himself, he realized that the costs were going to be an issue, so he attempted to arrange partnerships with a number of toy companies instead. This was harder and more tedious than he anticipated. Met with a lot of cynicism and rejection, his big break didn’t come until 1989, at the American International Toy Fair in New York City, where he met the vice president of a toy company called Larami.
In a “classic situation,” he invited Johnson to a formal meeting with the executive team at the company headquarters, which he attended with a pink Samsonite suitcase, but not before making some additional adjustments to his invention. “The new test model was made of plexiglass and PVC piping, and incorporated a new design feature — instead of keeping water inside the gun itself, a two-litre soda bottle sat on the top, and acted as a water reservoir.”
He didn’t say much when he stepped inside the conference room. “Instead, he opened up his suitcase and pulled out a water gun, with a cartoonish plastic bulb mounted on top, that looked like a prop from ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space.’” When he pumped the 628 mm long gun and pulled the trigger, a water stream with a 2.4 mm diameter blasted 12 meters across the room. “At that point, I knew I had captured their imagination,” recalled Johnson.
The stunt worked. Branded the Power Launcher, the toy went into production. Sales, however, did not follow. A marketing team was brought in, adjustments were made, and the water gun was released as the Super Soaker in 1991, along with a comical TV ad showing two young teens crashing a pool party while promising a “squirt gun of a higher caliber.” At a retail price of $10 each, sales soared to $200 million within the year.
But, what of Lonnie Johnson? The invention led to Johnson being honored at the National Toy Hall of Fame. “He’s probably overqualified as toy inventors go,” states Christopher Bensch, the organization's vice president for collections and chief curator. “After all, he is a rocket scientist. His invention was a rarified breakthrough because of its success. It ranks up there with the Slinky and Silly Putty. None of them were designed to be toys.”
Today, Johnson is the head of two energy research and development companies: Johnson Research & Development Co. and Johnson Energy Storage. He also serves on the Board of Directors of FIRST, a nonprofit organization dedicated to inspiring young people to participate in science and technology. Who could be better at sparking STEM related interests in a child than the guy who invented one of the best water guns in the world while working for NASA?
Note* Super Soaker 50 image sourced from https://nerf.fandom.com/wiki/Super_Soaker_50?file=Super_soaker_50.jpg available under the under CC-BY-SA license.