Summer Inventions: A NASA Engineer Created the Super Soaker?!

Learn five facts about Lonnie G. Johnson, the inventor of the daddy of all water guns.
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Lonnie G. Johnson Photo

Inventor Lonnie G. Johnson helped develop the stealth bomber program and engineered NASA space missions, but his most famous invention is the Super Soaker.

Summertime is the season for water-soaked fun and there's no better way to have a blast than to arm yourself with the daddy of all water guns, the Super Soaker®! With its ability to shoot water farther, faster, and drench your enemies more accurately than earlier squirt guns, it became the ultimate summer fun for kids when it was introduced in 1989. Even big kid Michael Jackson named the Super Soaker as one of his favorites toys.

So who invented this summer classic? Lonnie G. Johnson, the same guy who helped develop the stealth bomber program and send missions into space as a NASA engineer. Here are five facts about the inventor who was told he could he never be an inventor:

1. He wanted to be George Washington Carver.

Johnson always wanted to be an inventor even though the odds were against him. As an African-American growing up in segregated Mobile, Alabama, he was told the best he could do was become a technician, but Johnson aspired to follow in the footsteps of George Washington Carver, the pioneering African-American scientist and inventor who devised over 100 products using the peanut.

2. He started inventing toys as a child.

His father taught him how to make his own toys as a child including a pressurized Chinaberry shooter he made out of bamboo shoots and a go-cart made from junkyard scraps and a lawnmower engine. Some of his other experiments landed him in hot water with his mom, including tearing up his sister’s baby doll to see how it’s eyes opened and closed, and nearly burning down his house when he tried to cook rocket fuel in one of her saucepans.

Super Soaker Photo

Super Soakers, attack! (Photo: Wikimedia)

3. He grew up in segregated Alabama, but didn’t allow racism to stop him.

Johnson was the only black student to enter the 1968 Alabama State Science Fair and won first prize with his invention for a compressed-air-powered robot, inspired by the 1960s TV show Lost in Space. The science fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where, just five years earlier, in 1963, Governor George Wallace had tried to prevent black students from enrolling by standing in the doorway. 

4. Look, up in the sky: He worked for the Air Force and NASA.

Johnson received degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University, founded by Booker T. Washington and where George Washington Carver once taught. He joined the U.S Air Force where he helped develop the stealth bomber program, and later joined NASA where he worked as a systems engineer for the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Mars Observer project, and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

5. The invention of the Super Soaker was a happy accident.

While working for the Air Force, Johnson worked on his own inventions on the side, including an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon. In 1982, he completed the prototype and when he tested it in the bathroom it blasted water into the tub. Johnson realized he had a genius idea for a toy: the Power Drencher, which was later renamed the Super Soaker, was born. It debuted in 1989, and has ranked among the world's top 20 best-selling toys every year since it hit the market.

What’s next for Johnson? He's currently working on developing energy technologies, and holds over 80 patents, with over 20 more pending.