The acclaimed aerospace engineer, inventor, and business leader took inspiration from a mishap with a heat pump to create the Super Soaker water blaster.
Born Lonnie George Johnson on October 6, 1949, in Mobile, Alabama.
Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree in science in mechanical engineering from Tuskegee University in 1973, and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975.
His engineering career began at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He held positions with the United States Air Force and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory research and development centre.
Johnson contributed to high-profile projects, such as the B2 stealth bomber, the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and the Mars Observer.
A Happy Accident
In 1982, as he worked on ideas to improve a heat pump, Johnson’s project sprung a leak and shot water across the room—like a squirt gun, but with greater velocity. It gave him the idea for a water blaster, dubbed the Power Drencher.
In 1989, he founded his own engineering firm, called Johnson Research and Development Co. in Atlanta, Georgia. There, he further developed the idea he had for the toy.
He approached Hasbro with the idea, but they rejected it. He then pitched the concept to Larami (a toy company founded in 1959), which saw the potential.
In 1990, Larami released the Power Drencher Water Gun. The name was changed to Super Soaker in 1991 due to a trademark infringement claim.
The Super Soaker Legacy
The Super Soaker became the top-selling toy in the United States shortly after its release, selling 27 million units within its first 3 years on the market.
Larami extended the Super Soaker brand with models that included the Super Soaker, 50, Super Soaker 100, and Super Soaker 2000.
In 1995, Hasbro acquired Larami.
It is estimated that the Super Soaker brand has garnered over $1 billion in sales.
In 2013, Johnson sued Hasbro for unpaid royalties. The case was settled later that year, with Johnson receiving a reported $72.9 million from the toymaker.
In 2015, the Super Soaker was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong.
A self-professed “tinkerer”, Johnson holds over 100 U.S. patents and counting. His inventions include thermodynamic generators, film lithium batteries, a wet diaper detector, air toy projectile launchers, and Nerf blasters.
Johnson has earned awards and commendations from the US Air Force and NASA.
He has founded Excellatron Solid State, LLC; Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems, LLC; and Johnson Real Estate Investments, LLC.
In 2008, Popular Science recognized Johnson with a Breakthrough Award for his invention of the Johnson thermoelectric energy converter (JTEC).
In 2011, Johnson was inducted into the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame. In 2022, Johnson was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.