Thank you, Lonnie Johnson, for one of summer’s best toys — the Super Soaker
NASA engineer’s invention changed summertime
Summer’s hot sun beams down through broken clouds. Your favorite radio station serves as the day’s soundtrack. Your favorite uncle announces that the meat that had been marinating overnight in his secret mixture is now tenderized and ready for grilling.
Kids are already in the pool, and others are filling water balloons in preparation for the family water fight later in the day. Your older cousin arrives with the toy he’s been waiting six months to use: his brand new Super Soaker.
New memories are created every summer. But one that many Americans share is unpacking one of the most sought-after summertime toys that had been sitting in the garage since they received it as a Christmas gift.
The Super Soaker, created in 1982 by former NASA engineer Lonnie G. Johnson, remains the quintessential weapon in water wars across the country, selling more than 250 million units and earning over $1 billion in sales since hitting store shelves in 1990.
As is the case with most toys, we remember the joy they brought us without considering the person who made it possible.
Before entering the United States Air Force, before becoming a senior systems engineer with NASA and long before creating one of the All-Time 100 Greatest Toys, according to Time magazine, Lonnie Johnson was a young man from Mobile, Alabama, with a strong curiosity about science and technology.
“I’ve always liked to tinker with things,” Johnson explained in a piece for BBC News Magazine. “It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow: one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that.”
By the time Johnson reached Williamson High School, an all-black high school in Mobile, he had built a 3 1/2-foot, remote-controlled robot named Linex. In 1968, Linex took first place in a science competition hosted by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama.
Johnson was happy about the win but admitted to being perplexed by the university’s lack of interest in the young man behind the project. Although the Jim Crow era had ended a few years before, the mentality still remained.
“I have never really understood why in this country so many people look down on black people,” Johnson wrote. “I can’t say it weighed on me at the time, though. I was just so excited to have my robot, to know that it worked and that I would have a chance to show it off.”
Undeterred, Johnson continued his education on a scholarship at Tuskegee University, a historically black institution in Tuskegee, Alabama. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering two years later.
Johnson went on to enter the U.S. Air Force. Later, he took a position as senior systems engineer in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on the Galileo mission. During his free time at NASA, Johnson would tinker with the things around him — just like he did when he was a child.
“I was working on a new heat pump that used water instead of Freon because Freon is bad for the environment,” Johnson told Forbes. “I was experimenting with nozzles I’d made that shot a stream of water across the bathroom, and I thought they’d make a good water gun. I was having trouble getting people to understand the hard science inventions I had, like a heat pump or the digital measuring instrument. I thought the toy was something anyone could look at and appreciate.”
Johnson didn’t know at the time that this invention would become the “No. 1 selling toy in the world.” The first water gun sold so well, Johnson said, that there was a request to expand the product line. Two weeks later, the Super Soaker 100 was crafted. There have been 19 variations of the gun in its 27-year existence.
Today, Johnson is the president and founder of Johnson Research and Development Co., a technology development company that led the way in technological innovations in the toy industry.
So, next time you pull out a fancy Super Soaker to torture your siblings, be sure to thank Johnson for enhancing the way we celebrate summer.