Meet the African American who invented the Water Gun.
Since the 1980s, children (and more than a few adults) all around the world have used Super Soakers to dominate neighborhood water gun battles. The high-powered water bazooka is a remarkable piece of technology, but its origin and legacy also make it a living piece of history.
While the Super Soaker originally appeared on store shelves in 1990 under the moniker Power Drencher, it was created in 1982 by NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson in his bathroom and basement.
Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949. His father, an Army base truck driver, cultivated his interest in science and technology by teaching him how electric currents operate and how to repair household items.
Once, he told the Smithsonian Institute, “My parents’ support was crucial.” I used to play with rockets as a child. One day, I was preparing rocket fuel on the stove. It caught fire and nearly burned the home down. Instead of scolding, my parents gave me a hot plate and told me to undertake such activities outside.
Due to his amazing understanding of mechanical technology and ceaseless research, ohnson was known as “The Professor” among his pals. While Johnson spent endless hours at home studying the fundamentals of robotics, they constructed go-kart engines out of discarded materials.
In his final year of high school, Johnson entered his robot, Linex, in a scientific fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society of the University of Alabama. Later, Johnson recalled that the man stood one meter tall, had rotatable shoulders, and two arms with movable elbows and wrists. “He was able to pivot and maneuver on wheels.”
This was in 1968, in an Alabama where segregation and overt bigotry permeated every facet of life. Johnson attended a segregated high school and was the sole Black participant in the scientific fair at the University of Alabama. Linex was so impressive that they could not deny Johnson first place, a major accomplishment that also taught him a painful lesson: despite creating an incredible robot out of scrap metal, no one from the University of Alabama was interested in his academic future, despite the fact that he was an obviously gifted young scientist.
Instead, Johnson attended the renowned Tuskegee University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975. Then, he began working for the Air Force to complete the Air Force’s portion of the ROTC scholarship that had funded his education. During his time in the Air Force, he received his first patent for the “Digital Distance Measuring Instrument.” Simply told, it was an early form of DVD-reading technology, which he later referred to as “the huge fish that got away” because he did not pursue it further.
Johnson at NASA
Johnson’s career was just beginning, so any regrets would be dwarfed by his subsequent achievements. Beginning a significant new phase in his career, he was hired by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1979.
At NASA, Johnson participated in the historic Galileo project, which carried an unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter and the depths of space en route to the solar system’s largest planet to explore Jupiter and the vastness of space. One evening, he attached a nozzle to his bathroom sink while experimenting with ideas for a novel refrigeration system that used water instead of the environmentally dangerous freon.
It took Johnson a long time to find a company willing to manufacture and market his toy, but he persisted. In 1987, he returned to the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and worked on the Mars Observer spacecraft and the Cassini mission to Saturn. It was his responsibility to ensure that every system on the spacecraft had a backup, so that if something went wrong, the spacecraft would still be safe.
Johnson discovered a manufacturer for his gadget. He licensed his Super Soaker to Larami, which is now a division of Hasbro. In addition, he established his own engineering company, Johnson Research and Development. After its release in 1990, the Super Soaker became a huge success. In 1991 and 1992, it was the most popular toy in America.
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