Lonnie Johnson, Engineer Extraordinaire
While 2022 National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Lonnie Johnson might best be known for inventing the Super Soaker®, the best-selling water gun that has generated over $1 billion in sales over its lifetime, his professional accomplishments extend far beyond the realm of toy design.
Johnson was born on Oct. 6, 1949, in Mobile, Alabama. His mother worked as a nurse’s aide and his father was a World War II veteran who worked as a civilian driver at local U.S. Air Force bases.
Johnson’s father was skilled at working with his hands, and he passed this skill down to his six children from an early age by teaching them how to build their own toys. As a boy, Johnson constructed a pressurized Chinaberry shooter made of bamboo shoots with help from his dad. This desire to tinker stayed with him and at 13, he used junkyard scraps paired with a lawnmower engine to make his very own go-kart, which he drove on the highway until the police pulled him over.
In a story published by the BBC, Johnson explains how his father instilled in him his love for tinkering.
“It started with my dad,” Johnson said. “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.”
A Skilled Engineer
Johnson’s early experiences inspired him to pursue the study of engineering. In 1968, he represented his high school as the only Black student in a science fair hosted by the University of Alabama, and he took first place for building a robot he named “Linex.”
After graduating from high school, Johnson enrolled at Tuskegee University and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. Following his graduate education, he landed a job as a research engineer at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and then enlisted in the Air Force, serving as the acting chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section. In 1979, Johnson accepted a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and began working on the Galileo mission, which would send an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter. A few years later, Johnson returned to the Air Force, where he worked on the first B-2 stealth bomber, then went back to NASA in 1987 to work on the Mars Observer project and the early stages of the Cassini mission to Saturn.
In addition to these impressive professional accomplishments, Johnson continued tinkering and inventing at home in his spare time. One night, as he was working on an idea for a more efficient and environmentally friendly heat pump for a refrigeration system, his creation began to leak.
“I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, ‘This would make a great gun,’” he recalled in an interview published by Popular Mechanics.
Continuing his work on this project at night, he designed plexiglass pieces for a squirt gun that would shoot pressurized water. After completing the first prototype, he gave it as a gift to his 7-year-old daughter, who proceeded to drench her friends on the Air Force base.
“I got the idea of the Super Soaker, but I was working on an environmental problem,” Johnson recalled in an interview with NIHF. “Recognizing even back then that that was a significant challenge and something that was worth applying myself toward.”
Bringing the Super Soaker to Market
While the design of his water gun prototype proved effective, manufacturing the toys at scale was difficult. He received a quote of $200,000 to produce the first 1,000 guns and realized he needed a partner.
Following a 7-year-long search for a production partner, Johnson attended the American International Toy Fair and met a representative from the toy company Larami who invited him to pitch his idea at the company’s headquarters in Philadelphia. After redesigning the water gun by adding a water tank made of a 2-liter soda bottle, he accepted the offer to present his invention.
“I took the gun out of my suitcase,” Johnson recalled. “They asked if it worked and I shot water across the conference room.”
Larami was sold. The toy was marketed as the “Power Drencher” and hit store shelves in 1990. The next year, the product was redesigned and rebranded as “Super Soaker” and sales skyrocketed, generating over $200 million and becoming the No. 1 selling toy in America. In 1993, Hasbro purchased Larami and Johnson’s water gun patents laid the foundation for the company’s Nerf N-Strike product line.
While best known for the Super Soaker, Johnson’s accomplishments extend far beyond toy design. He holds more than 100 U.S. patents and is the founder of Johnson Research and Development Co. Inc., an Atlanta, Georgia-based company that has spun off additional companies, including Johnson Energy Storage and JTEC Energy Inc.
He is currently working on a new generation of rechargeable battery technology and the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter (JTEC), which efficiently converts waste heat to electrical energy and can be run in reverse as a cooling device.
Learn More About the NIHF Class of 2022
To learn more about the visionary inventors Inducted in Lonnie Johnson’s class, please visit our website.