How the Super Soaker Was Accidentally Invented

April 18, 2024

super soaker

The Super Soaker has been a staple to cool off and have fun for kids and even adults during those long, hot summer months. But the invention of the Super Soaker came by accident. Luckily, the man who invented it was a NASA engineer named Lonnie Johnson, and he saw the potential for a toy that was a step above any squirt gun offered on the market.

Johnson is a prolific inventor and has over 120 patents to his name. While many of these patents were for scientific and engineering purposes, others were strictly for fun, such as the Super Soaker. Johnson had always been an inventor and started his journey in 1968 with a robot he built for a high school science fair that ran on compressed air. He won first prize. Johnson later graduated from Tuskegee University with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1973 and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering in 1975.

He went on to work for the US Air Force and got his first patent in 1979 for a device that read binary-encoded information from a photographically reduced scale. It became the basics of how CDs and DVDs are read. Johnson, at the time, was inventing as a hobby and didn’t pursue it. He later saw it commercialized and stated that it was “the big fish that got away.” After his employment at the Air Force, Johnson got a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he worked on the development of the B2 stealth bomber and the Galileo and Cassini space missions. This was when he got his “accidental” idea for a new toy that would become famous.

Johnson was working in his bathroom in 1982, but it wasn’t on a new type of squirt gun. He was working on a new type of heat pump that used water instead of Freon. As he experimented with nozzles he had developed, a squirt of water shot across the bathroom. It was at this point that Johnson thought that what he had before him would make a great squirt gun.

He began working on the concept and came up with a prototype made of PVC pipe, Plexiglas, and a two-liter bottle that would be the water reservoir. The water which sprayed from the prototype went almost 40 feet. Johnson got a patent for his concept in 1986 and titled it “Squirt Gun.”

Lonnie Johnson
Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker

But the challenging part was just beginning for what would become the Super Soaker. Johnson wanted to manufacture it himself but found it to be cost-prohibitive, to the tune of $200,000 for the first 1,000 water guns. He felt a cost of $200 each would be too much for a consumer to pay and began looking for alternatives.

He began writing letters to companies in 1989, but no one wanted to pursue his idea. Even Hasbro (who eventually took over the Super Soaker) turned him down. He ultimately found a partner in a small toy company called the Larami Corporation. In 1990, they began manufacturing the new water gun and called it the Power Drencher. It was relaunched as the Super Soaker in 1991 after some tweaking and a successful TV ad. It became the top-selling toy in 1992 with sales of $200 million and has been a top-ten selling toy every year since that time.

Because of the success of the Super Soaker, Hasbro acquired the Larami Corporation in 1995. The same company that had once turned down the Super Soaker now wanted it. But Johnson wasn’t done. He next replaced the water in the Super Soaker with a Nerf projectile and invented the Nerf gun. He got a patent for the design in 1996.

In 2013, Johnson filed suit against Hasbro for underpaid royalties and settled in arbitration for almost $73 million. He no longer receives royalties from the Super Soaker as the patents have expired. But that is probably not a concern for Johnson since he has two technology development companies that are focused on new energy technologies and not shooting long water streams.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Popular Mechanics, Biography, Forbes

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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