Summer is almost here, which means backyards across Australia will soon turn into battlegrounds as kids (and adults) pull out the water pistols. But did you know one of the most popular — and powerful — versions on the market was invented by an engineer?
Born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama, Lonnie George Johnson was a stereotypical young engineer. One of six kids, he spent his spare time building go-karts, dismantling toys to see how they worked and making concoctions out of rocket fuel.
“The kids in the neighbourhood took to calling me ‘the Professor’,” Johnson said.
“We had little projects that we would work on, and I was the ringleader.”
Before his foray into water pistols, Johnson completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering at Tusekegee University, followed by a Masters in Nuclear Engineering.
He went on to work for the United States (US) Air Force, studying US space launches that used nuclear power. He also spent a period working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on Galileo, an unmanned mission to study Jupiter and its moons.
At the same time, Johnson spent the evenings tinkering with his own ideas.
“I was experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system that would use water as a working fluid instead of ozone-destroying [chlorofluorocarbons],” Johnson said.
“One evening, I machined a nozzle and hooked it up to the bathroom sink, where I was performing some experiments. It shot a powerful stream of water across the bathroom sink. That’s when I got the idea that a powerful water gun would be fun.”
Johnson continued to work on his concept for seven years.
“In February 1989 I was walking the halls of the American International Toy Fair in New York, the world’s largest toy fair, when I ran into a company called Larami,” he said.
“At the toy fair, the vice president [of Larami] … told me that the idea of a really high-performance water pistol was interesting.”
Johnson began working on a fresh prototype using plexiglass and PVC piping, with a two-litre soft drink bottle on top as a water reservoir. At 628 mm long, the device’s water stream could reach over 12 metres.
The team at Larami was impressed with Johnson’s prototype, and acquired the device in 1989. The product first appeared in toy shops in 1990, initially marketed as the “Power Drencher”, and later rebranded as the “Super Soaker”.
The Super Soaker reached US$200 million in sales in 1992, and has been a best-selling toy ever since.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Johnson later designed the N-Strike range of Nerf dart guns, using the same compressed air technology.
He also founded Johnson Research and Development Co, which, along with its spin-off companies, has developed a number of innovative products, including a direct thermal energy conversion device for generating electrical energy from low grade waste heat.
A self-described “patent addict”, Johnson now holds more than 140 patents.
“I don’t know what it is with me, but I’ve never been very good at giving up,” he said.
As well as pursuing his inventions, Johnson is committed to getting kids excited about STEM.
He is on the Board of Directors of GeorgiaFIRST Robotics, an organisation that uses mentor-based programs to engage young people in science, technology, engineering and maths.
— Lonnie Johnson (@LonnieGJohnson) May 22, 2019
He also founded the Johnson STEM Activity Center, which supports high school robotics teams in the greater Atlanta region, and reaches about 10,000 kids per year.
“It’s extremely inspiring for me to see these kids experience success building robots and doing things that they had not anticipated they’d be able to do,” Johnson said.
“And the real benefit from that is that once they are successful, they internalise that — and that’s not something you can take away from a person. Realising that they’re able to do, and capable of doing, things beyond what they have been told up to that point is life changing.”
Interested in inventions by engineers? Check out this story about the civil engineer who developed the Ferris wheel.