Lonnie Johnson was famous. Not just because he was an engineer who helped design three space probes for NASA. Not even because he held nearly forty patents on such practical inventions as thermostats and hair dryers.
No, much of Lonnie Johnson’s fame came from a very different gadget. Carried by children and child-like adults alike, his best-known invention can hit a moving target at fifty paces with great accuracy, spraying refreshing relief on a hot summer’s day.
In 1982, Johnson was developing an environmentally friendly heat pump for refrigerators, one that circulated water through tubes instead of relying on harsh chemicals. Armed with bits of plastic tubing and other spare parts, Johnson stationed himself in his bathroom to test his idea. He attached tubing to the faucet on the bathroom sink, rigged a homemade nozzle to the end, and turned on the tap. A stream of water shot across the room, hitting the shower curtains around the bathtub, blasting them back with surprising force.
The water traveled farther and faster than Johnson had imagined. “I knew it would make a neat water gun,” he said later.
In his workshop, Johnson built a model. Using plastic pipes, Plexiglas, and an empty plastic beverage bottle as a storage tank for water, he constructed a rifle-like water shooter. Then he asked his six year-old daughter to test it out on their neighbors. The girl was happy to try it – what kid wouldn’t be? – and the neighbors got totally soaked. Everyone agreed. The water gun was great fun.
It took almost four years for Johnson to receive a patent for the invention, and it wasn’t until 1990 that the first Super Soaker hit the market place. Well over a billion dollars worth of Super Soakers have been sold since, making Johnson’s bathroom surprise one of the best-selling toys of all time.