Lonnie Johnson, The Former NASA Engineer Behind The Super Soaker

The Super Soaker, a high powered squirt gun, is a top selling toy. Its inventor was a nuclear engineer, Lonnie Johnson, who has made significant contributions to the STEM field.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci
Lonnie Johnson and The Super Soaker1 , 2

The Super Soaker, a squirt gun popular for its shooting force, is solidified in the collective consciousness of many Millenials. Any mention of the Super Soaker immediately evokes a sense of nostalgia. It was the summertime toy of choice for many and is still used today all across America at family picnics, backyard parties, and for some in water wars, a high school rite of passage.

The pressurized water gun upped the ante on warm weather playtime, and to date has grossed over a billion dollars in revenue. The Super Soaker was invented by nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson in 1989. While he is most well known for his contribution to the world with his famous toy, Dr. Johnson’s long and exciting career serves as an attestation to his scientific and engineering genius. 


The Lonnie Johnson Story

Lonnie Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949. From childhood he showed a penchant for discovery, going on to win a regional science fair as a teenager. Johnson attended Tuskegee University, Alabama historically black college, as an engineering student. He earned both a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee which is America’s number one producer of black engineers. Following graduation, Johnson went on to work for the United States Air Force and later, for NASA. His accomplishments include developing the stealth bomber for the US Air Force and contributing to multiple interplanetary missions with NASA. 

To give more context to the implications of such a career, it is important to think of the era in which Lonnie Johnson came of age. He was born prior to the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, a state notorious for its history with race. Johnson came from a humble background. His parents worked on a cotton farm, as did many African Americans during that era. He also attended segregated schools, as during his formative years it was still illegal for Blacks and Whites to attend school together.

Furthermore, the infamous Syphilis Experiment was still being conducted in the city of Tuskegee while Johnson was a student at Tuskegee University. This experiment tested the effects of untreated syphilis on the African American male. Subjects were not informed that they were part of this experiment but rather told that they were the recipients of free healthcare. Such was the state of rights for Black Americans during Lonnie Johnson’s formative years. However, none of this stopped him from achieving at school, in the Air Force, or with NASA.

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In addition to his success with the Air Force and NASA, Johnson also started working on his own as an inventor. He holds patents for over 100 inventions. The Super Soaker inventor has patents for several toys, including variations of the Super Soaker and the Nerf Gun, which he also developed. Besides toys, Johnson also created items for home use such as a wet diaper detector and a hairdryer with a curling apparatus. A master of versatility, Lonnie Johnson founded and still heads a technology development company that also has spin-off companies.

One of his companies works on the development of rechargeable batteries. Another is interested in thermodynamic energy conversion. Beyond his success in science, engineering, and development, Lonnie Johnson also gives back to his community. To this day Johnson dedicates a large amount of his time to serving on boards for several non-profit organizations. One of these organizations is FIRST, which is dedicated to supporting education and career development for young people interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). 

Lonnie Johnson, Super Soaker Inventor

In addition to all of the titles he holds, Lonnie Johnson on occasion gives motivational speeches. In one, he implores the audience to get a grasp on the value of perseverance. The story of Lonnie and the Super Soaker exemplifies that exact quality. In 1982, a leak that sprang at his home while he was experimenting with a heat pump inspired Johnson to design a water gun that would shoot with a high velocity.

Knowing that a powerful water gun would be fun for children, Johnson spent the next seven years shopping his idea around. Finally, he licensed and sold it in 1989 to the Larami Corporation as the Power Drencher. After some improvements in terms of marketing and design, the renamed Super Soaker became a top-selling toy. 

Larami Corporation would eventually sell the Super Soaker to Hasbro. The super-powered toy has seen several versions and is sold under the Nerf line to which Johnson has also contributed. Nerf Guns shoot foam darts and are also tremendously popular. Johnson is also a patent holder for the design of this toy.

Super Soakers alone have brought in a billion dollars in sales over the years. In 2013, Johnson’s development company settled a lawsuit with Hasbro that arose due to Hasbro underpaying Johnson royalties he was owed from sales of the toys he designed. The lawsuit was under arbitration for quite some time, but Johnson was finally awarded 73 million dollars in unpaid royalties. 

From humble beginnings in Alabama to a career in STEM that is nothing short of remarkable, Lonnie Johnson is a true American success story. Hard work, dedication, innovation, and tenacity allowed him to not only become a rocket scientist but to literally make a fortune from designing toys. His trajectory is one that dreams are made of, and he often encourages people to keep dreaming. His dreams started with a robot design for a school fair and took him to the hallowed halls of Tuskegee University. Beyond Tuskegee, he went on to develop innovative weaponry. His legacy at NASA includes missions to Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Lonnie Johnson is a revolutionary figure in STEM. His life is a testament not only to the success that one person can achieve, but also to the possibilities of innovation that can occur in one lifetime. While the Super Soaker will forever be a symbol of childhood fun, Lonnie Johnson will forever be a symbol of the potential of a single inventor. 

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