You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to come up with a great idea, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. For Lonnie Johnson, a lifetime of achievement and success at various levels on government and private sector projects could not prepare him for the success the he would ultimately achieve – by building a better squirt-gun.
Lonnie Johnson was born on October 6, 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. His father worked as a civilian driver at Brookley Air Force Base, and his mother was a homemaker who worked part time as a nurse’s aide. His father taught Robert and his brothers how to repair various household items, prompting the boys to create their own toys. The boys once made a go-kart out of household items and a lawn mower motor. Although his parents were excited about his interest in science and inventing, they weren’t prepared for the time he decided to experiment with a rocket fuel he created with sugar and saltpeter which exploded and burned up part of the kitchen. His talents were more refined when he attended Williamson High School and in 1968, as a senior, took part in a national science competition sponsored by the University of Alabama. There he displayed a remote controlled robot named “Linex” which he built from scraps found at a junkyard and parts of his brothers’ walkie-talkie and his sisters’ reel-to-reel tape recorder. He placed first in the competition and entered Tuskeegee University on a mathematics scholarship. At Tuskeegee he was elected into the Pi Tau Sigma National Engineering Honor Society and graduated with distinction in 1973 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering. He continued on at Tuskeegee and received a Master’s Degree in Nuclear Engineering in 1975.
After graduation, he took a position at the Savannah River National Laboratory, conducting thermal analysis on plutonium fuel spheres. He later served as a research engineer, developing cooling systems at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He then joined the Air Force and was assigned to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he served as the Acting Chief of the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section. In 1973, he left the Air Force and took over as Senior Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. He worked on the Galileo Mission to Jupiter, but returned in 1982 to his military career. He worked at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) facility in Bellevue, Nebraska and then moved to the SAC Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California where he worked on the Stealth Bomber. He also worked as Acting Chief at the Space Nuclear Power Safety Section of the Air Force Weapon Laboratory at Kirkland Air Force Base in New Mexico. A Captain, he was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Air Force Commendation Medal. In 1987, Johnson returned to his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he worked on the Mars Observer project, and served as the fault protection engineer on the Saturn Cassini mission project. He later worked as a project engineer for the Kraft mission which studied asteroids.
Earlier, around 1982, he was working on developing a heat pump that would work by circulating water rather than expensive and environmentally unfriendly freon. In his basement at home, he took some tubing with a specially devised nozzle on the other end and connected it to a bathroom sink. When he turned on the faucet, a stream of water shot out of the nozzle across the room with such force that the air currents caused the curtain to move. His first thought was “this would make a great water gun.”
Johnson set out to develop a pressurized water gun that was safe enough for children to play with. Water guns at the time very unsophisticated and cheaply made, able to shoot streams of water about eight feet. Using basic tools, he combined a PVC pipe, a piece of plexiglas and an empty plastic soda bottle. His invention worked by partially filling a reservoir tank with water and then using a handle to force air into the chamber. When the trigger was pulled, the air pressure would force water to exit through a narrow hole, launching a blast of water more than 25 feet. He called his invention a “pneumatic water gun” and he continue revising it until it could shoot almost 50 feet. When he had developed a working model (which he called the Power Drencher), he and his partner Bruce D’Andrade began trying to market it while trying to secure a patent for it. They first tried to market it to Daisy Manufacturing, the BB Gun manufacturing giant, but no deal could be worked out after two years of negotiations. After securing the patent in 1991 (the toy was now called the Super Soaker), Johnson was introduced to Al Davis, an executive with Larimi Corp. at a New York City Toy Fair. Two weeks later Johnson was in Larimi’s headquarters in Philadelphia. The executives watching the demonstration all exclaimed “Wow!” Their only concern was whether anyone would pay $10.00 for a squirt gun. After signing a deal with Johnson’s company (Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc.) they would all be in for a big surprise.
Within a year, all involved knew they had a runaway hit. On the popular Tonight Show, host Johnny Carson used a Super Soaker to drench his sidekick Ed McMahon. Within 10 years more than 200 million Super Soakers had been sold. The gun had gone through many modifications and expansions, with new product lines, and became the toy of the decade. Johnson continued inventing and would eventually hold more than 80 patents. For his contributions to science (and in light of his great success with the Super Soaker) Johnson was inducted into the Inventor Hall of Fame in 2000. His company has continued to innovate, creating improved radon detectors, heat pumps and lithium battery products as well as new toy concepts.
Lonnie Johnson didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to become a worldwide success…. but it sure gave him something to fall back upon.
CNBC Spotlight on Lonnie Johnson