Lonnie Johnson is not necessarily the most famous of black historical figures. We typically think about this time as being reserved for civil rights leaders and abolitionists…which obviously makes sense given how important their contributions were. However, Lonnie Johnson’s contribution likely had a profound impact on your life or more specifically your childhood.
Lonnie Johnson is the inventor of the Super Soaker.
But like most successful people, his story doesn’t start with his most well-known accomplishment. Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1949 to a WWII veteran and nurse’s aide. He displayed a love and talent for tinkering early on. At 13, he created a go-kart from a lawnmower and junkyard scraps which he drove on the highway until he was finally pulled over by the police. In 1968, he was the only black student in the Alabama science fair. He won the statewide science fair by building a robot he named “Linex.” The robot was powered by compressed air which foreshadowed his future invention.
Though Johnson is most known for the Super Soaker, it should be noted that he was wildly successful well before his breakout toy hit the market. After high school, he attended Tuskegee University where he obtained a B.S. in mechanical engineering and a master’s in nuclear engineering. He joined the Air Force and rose to the rank of captain where he received commendations for both his work as a nuclear systems engineer and project manager. His next stop was NASA where he worked at the famous jet propulsion laboratory. While at NASA he helped develop the power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter. He also worked on the stealth bomber.
While working on an environmentally friendly heat pump that used water instead of Freon, Johnson attached a high-pressure nozzle to the bathroom sink and the resulting stream of water that shot across the room got him thinking about the pump’s potential as a toy. He made a prototype water gun which he gave to his daughter and observed how none of the other children on the base could match her firepower in squirt gunfights.
He made a deal for his water gun technology with Larami Corporation, which was absorbed into Hasbro Inc in 1995. Within the first two years, the Super Soaker generated $200 million in sales and was the best-selling toy in the US market. Unknown to most people is the fact that Lonnie Johnson’s technology was also used in several lines of Nerf dart guns specifically the N-Strike versions.
Like many inventors, Lonnie Johnson has not always been fairly compensated for his work. In 2013, Johnson filed and won a suit against Hasbro for underpaid royalties.
Today, Johnson has two technology development companies. According to Hasbro, the Super Soaker has generated around $1 billion in sales.
Want to teach your students about Lonnie Johnson? Check out this children’s book written about him.