Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1960s, neighbourhood kids called Lonnie Johnson “the Professor”. He was mad on gadgets, putting together an engine from scraps and attaching it to a go-kart, or tinkering with making his own robot, just like the ones he saw on TV.
Johnson was a black kid at a newly integrated majority-black high school. But the furore surrounding Brown v. the Board of Education didn’t bother him too much at the time – he was too busy constructing his ‘robot’ Linex, cobbled together from a propane tank, a reel-to-reel tape player and his sister’s walkie talkie.
Linex won first prize at a local university science fair, and Johnson nabbed a brace of scholarships to attend Tuskagee University – home of the famous Tuskagee Airmen. A few years later he walked out with a degree in mechanical engineering and a masters in nuclear engineering, working on nuclear reactors and then studying the use of nuclear power in space launches for the U.S. Air Force. After an invite from NASA, Johnson was drafted into the Galileo Mission, with the aim of sending unmanned spacecraft to Jupiter. His job was to attach a nuclear power source to the probe.
Even with all this tinkering at work, Johnson still spent a good wodge of his spare time playing around with various inventions. In 1982, while conducting some refrigeration experiments, he machined a nozzle and hooked it up to his bathroom sink, whereupon it spat a powerful stream of water across the room. Though Johnson didn’t know it at the time, the occasion was momentous (if messy). The man who made robots and helped spacecraft fly had just taken the first step to his greatest invention: the Super Soaker.
“I set to work making the parts of the plastic water gun on a little lathe and milling machine in the basement,” he recalls. “I really had no idea if the magic I had in mind was going to materialise until all the parts were put together and I was ready to pull the trigger.”
Johnson’s steroidal water pistol was a hit at Air Force picnics, and with his small daughter and her pals. An early design was patented in 1986, but toy companies were leery of entering production. Three years later, Johnson found a manufacturer willing to give it a go, and fashioned a new prototype to celebrate: this one coupling high-pressure ‘shooting’ with a bottle-like water reservoir to cut down on ‘reloads’.
First marketed as the “Power Drencher”, Johnson’s gun was more complex and expensive to produce than the familiar squirt gun, but it still sold pretty well. Rebranded next year as the Super Soaker, it moved 20 million units in a single summer, and made Johnson a very rich man. (He also went on to work on the Nerf gun, which didn’t hurt his income one bit.) Being a boffin at heart, Johnson has ploughed much of his toy royalties into building and maintaining his own scientific facility in Atlanta, Georgia, where he employs 30 very smart people. They work on battery technology and eco-friendly cooling systems. And come summer we bet their company picnics are pretty good, too.