Source: Business Insider | Chris Snyder and Matthew Stuart | August, 2017
The Super Soaker was a game changer when came to squirt guns and summer fun. And you have Lonnie Johnson to thank for it.
The man behind one of the most popular toys of all time is an engineer who has worked for Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Air Force, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Now he’s working on a few other inventions that he hopes will change the world. Following is a transcript of the video.
The whole idea was to be able to shoot a very, very high pressure stream of water a very long distance.
I’m Lonnie Johnson. I’m an inventor. The invention that most people know me for is the Super Soaker water gun.
My career started actually when I was in high school. I built a robot that won a regional science fair at the University of Alabama. I went on to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory as a research engineer on high temperature nuclear reactors. Air Force Weapons Laboratory on advanced spacecraft that used nuclear power sources. Then to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory working on the Galileo spacecraft as a power systems engineer.
When I was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory back in the early ’80s is when I first got the idea. The Super Soaker was based on some engineering principles that I applied. I was actually working on another invention which was a heat pump that would use water as a working fluid instead of Freon.
And I shot the stream of water across the bathroom using some nozzles that I made, and I thought to myself, “Geez, if I were to develop a new type of water gun, that was a performance water gun,it could really do well.
“That’s not pressure. This is pressure!”
Initially I wanted to manufacture the gun myself, but when I went to a plastics injection molding manufacturing company and talked to them about the parts that I needed, what I needed to have made it, it turned out it was going to cost about $200,000 to get the first thousand guns produced. And I thought to myself, I was an officer in the military the time, I didn’t have $200,000 in cash laying around.
I decide to come to New York, present my ideas at Toy Fair, try to find a manufacturer that I could work with. And it was there that I met the people at Larami.
They invited me to come to their headquarters in Philadelphia. It took 2 weeks to build the gun. And as soon as it was finished, I call the guy up at Laramie, because I didn’t want him to forget my conversation. I got my suitcase and went in, and of course I had my prototypes in the suitcase.
I opened it up, and they ask to see what I had, and showed them the gun. They said, “Well, does it work? How well does it work?” So I pumped it up and shot it across the conference room, and the president of the company said, “Wow!” And that was it.
I knew I captured their imagination, and the rest is history.
I knew the gun worked well, and I knew it would be successful. I did not realize how successful it would be. It became the number one selling toy in the world.
Actually, the first year, it was called “Drencher.” It was not called a Super Soaker. Someone claimed the name “Drencher” and wanted us to pay royalties on that, and so we changed the name. That’s when we came up with the name of Super Soaker.
The guns were literally blowing off the shelves by word of mouth. We couldn’t keep up with the demand.
People would say, “You know, Johnson, you’re really lucky.” And I thought, it’s just a lot of hard work. It took 10 years from the idea to major success.
I started my own business, and built my company, my research company, with the proceeds from that invention. I don’t really talk about how much money that I made from the invention. But I think it is fair to say that just about all of it is going into the research that I’m conducting. So it’s going back into the company to develop some of the energy technology that I’m focused on.
I am a nuclear engineer. I’m working on advanced energy technology. I have a new type of the engine that converts heat into electricity, and I’ve also developed a new type of battery that’s all ceramic, without liquid electrolyte.
The other toy gun that was on the market and enjoying major success was these Nerf dart guns.
“It’s Nerf, or nothing.”
And I wanted to have that part of the market too. So I started developing Nerf dart guns, and I developed guns that outperformed the guns that Hasbro had on the market at the time. And eventually ended up doing a deal with Hasbro to license my dart guns.
And at that point, I literally was the king of all toy guns.
So now to have another success in the consumer space would really be cool . So that would mean, if I could pull that off, that would mean that lightning will it struck three times.