Lonnie Johnson, the Millionaire Super-Soaker-Inventing Rocket Scientist Who is Trying to Save the World

This recent headline caught my eye (which reflexively winced from painful memories of point-blank encounters):

Super Soaker creator awarded $72.9M from Hasbro.

Not just because it involved one of my favorite pre-video-game toys, or because of the money involved. But that there was a creator behind the Super Soaker, a single person who had a passion to make industrial-powered squirt guns. The Super Soaker was great, but I just figured it was the product of committee, the natural evolution of toy guns trying to emulate the power of real ones. And as a kid, you don’t think of toys being actual engineering achievements.

But the story behind the Super Soaker is even more interesting than the millions it earned Lonnie Johnson, a former NASA rocket scientist. For one, Johnson stumbled upon the idea at a time when his day job was building a nuclear power source for the Galileo spacecraft. And in this particular Eureka moment, he wasn’t at his day job, but at home in the bathroom, trying to come up with a new kind of refrigerator cooling system that would save the ozone layer.

From this fantastic New York Times profile in 2001:

On his day job in 1982, Lonnie G. Johnson, a 32-year-old aerospace engineer, was preparing an interplanetary spacecraft for its atomic battery. But he dreamed of inventing something that would change life on earth.

He often worked at home as his wife and children slept. One weekend, while tinkering in his bathroom, Mr. Johnson hooked up to the sink a prototype cooling device.

Meant to run on water, it bore at one end a length of vinyl tubing and a homemade metal nozzle. The rest, as they say, is history.

”I turned and shot into the bathtub,” he recalled. The blast was so powerful that the whoosh of accompanying air set the bathroom curtains flying. ”I said to myself, ‘Jeez, this would make a great water gun.’ ”

Mr. Johnson is the inventor of the Super Soaker, what industry experts call the world’s most powerful and popular squirt gun.

Since the Super Soaker’s introduction in 1990, it has earned nearly $1 billion in revenue. Johnson was not a poor man before the recent $72.9 million windfall of royalties, one of the rare tireless inventors who reap financial rewards in their own lifetimes. The Super Soaker was just a bullet point in a long list of envy-inspiring achievements. From the AJC:

  • As an Alabama high school senior, Johnson finished building a remote-controlled robot with a reel-to-reel tape player for a brain and jukebox solenoids controlling its pneumatic limbs
  • After graduating from Tuskegee he joined the Air Force and worked at the Air Force Weapons Laboratory at Sandia
  • Worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Mars Observer project
  • He also helped design the Cassini robot probe that flew 740 million miles to Saturn.

The best part: Johnson hasn’t been satisfied with his fortunes. He continues to work on and create renewable and efficient energy sources, the same thing he was doing decades ago when tinkering around with his bathroom sink.

Read this MIT profile of him in 1998. One thing that sticks out to me about Johnson is that, unlike the archetypal business-minded inventors, real and fictional, who have been lucky to have become rich while they were alive, he seems to have kept a low profile, even as he continues to attempt moon-shot engineering projects (“Super Soaker Inventor Invents New Thermoelectric Generator”). His Wikipedia entry seems far too short for someone best known for the farthest-shooting water gun.

I'm a programmer journalist, currently teaching computational journalism at Stanford University. I'm trying to do my new blogging at blog.danwin.com.