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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Engineer Behind the Super Soaker

Written by Mary Lord

Inventor Lonnie G. Johnson spent more than a decade in high-level posts within the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Air Force, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He was, in short, a rocket scientist, albeit one with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, a master’s in nuclear engineering, and honorary Ph.D. from Tuskegee University.

But what sent his already high-flying career into orbit was the invention of an extremely popular toy: the Super Soaker. Johnson was working on creating an environmentally friendly heat pump when he hooked a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom sink. Out shot a powerful jet stream of water, and Johnson immediately saw its potential as a squirt gun.

After making successful prototypes for his daughter and neighborhood friends, he licensed the Super Soaker to Larami Corp. in 1989. (Hasbro later acquired it.) Sales for the Super Soaker have totaled nearly $1 billion since its launch, and it continues to be one of the world’s top-selling toys.

CNBC News featured him on its How I Made My Millions segment.

Dreaming up a new toy may seem an unusual step for an engineer, but not for Johnson, whose father – a skilled handyman – taught his children to build their own toys. According to his biography, as a boy in Alabama, he and his dad built a pressurized chinaberry shooter out of bamboo shoots. At the age of 13, Johnson attached a lawnmower engine to a go-kart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over. A robot named “Linex” he built out of scrap metal in high school won the science fair that year; hosted at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, he was the only African-American student in the competition.

Propelled by the success of the Super Soaker, for which he received patent number 5,074,437, Johnson went on to receive 80 more patents for his inventions and founded his own research and development company. Successful inventions include a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat. Others, like a diaper that plays a nursery rhyme when soiled, flamed out.

These days, Johnson is working on developing revolutionary energy technology – funded in part from his water gun windfall, according to Forbes. One of his companies is introducing a new generation of rechargeable battery technology, and another is developing a technology that converts thermal energy to electrical energy with significant advantages over alternative systems. Watch CNN profile on Johnson latest projects from August 2010.

“Know that no one has a lock on any technology,” he said in his U.S. Patent and Trademark Office biography. “Those who have skill in the art can understand it and make it better… You can’t make money without getting people interested in the invention.”

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