The happy accident that changed squirt guns forever

Super Soaker inventor Lonnie Johnson holds a modern iteration of the toy he designed.

In 1982 Lonnie Johnson made a discovery that would change his life and the future of toys.

“I was working on a new type of heat pump for refrigerators and air conditioners and I wanted to use water as a working fluid instead of Freon because I wanted working fluid that was environmentally friendly,” Johnson says. “So I was machining some nozzles and experimenting at home and shot some streams of water into the sink and then I turned and shot across the bathroom where I was doing these experiments and I thought to myself geez, this would make a neat water gun. So I decided to put the hard science stuff behind and start working on some really fun stuff.”

When Johnson says “hard science stuff” he means it. He’s a nuclear engineer by training who was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Galileo Mission at the time of his discovery. He always dreamed of being an independent inventor, but knew he had to keep his day job to pay the bills. He loved his job, but he hoped his idea for a powerful squirt gun would be his ticket to freedom.

“I decided I could develop a toy and get some revenue from that and then use that revenue to really become an inventor and work on some of the more challenging projects I had in mind,” Johnson says.

Johnson built a prototype out of Plexiglas, PVC piping and a two-liter soda bottle and inquired about producing the gun on his own. “I got some quotes on what exactly it was going to take to set up a manufacturing line and I was told it was going to cost a couple hundred thousand dollars to get the first thousand guns off of the product line,” Johnson remembers. “I was a captain in the Air Force and didn’t have $200,000, so I said, ‘okay, there are some things I need to learn.’”

The Super Soaker prototype.

Johnson instead tried to peddle his high-powered squirt guns to toy companies. He wowed bigwigs over and over by accurately shooting paper cups off of conference tables from across meeting rooms, but no one wanted to take the risk on this guy with no business experience. It took seven years of near misses and failed deals before an up-and-coming company called Larami Corporation bought the license to manufacture what it called the “Power Drencher.”

The gun was released in 1990, but it didn’t make much of an impact at first. That’s when the ad wizards got involved. They changed the name to “Super Soaker” and shot a now iconic TV commercial.

The commercial helped rocket sales up, and in 1991 alone more than 2 million of the guns were sold. The brand, now owned by Hasbro, has now brought in more than $1 billion in total sales.

Johnson has been working on a myriad of other inventions since the “Super Soaker” made him famous. He’s gotten back to his original idea of an environmentally friendly refrigeration system, he’s developed a battery he believes can make electric cars more practical and is researching a new way to generate energy from the sun. But he certainly doesn’t mind that despite the more than 100 patents he holds, his name will forever be tied to a toy. In fact, he says without the “Super Soaker” he never would have learned the most valuable lesson of his career.

“The only way I was going to learn what I needed to learn to be successful was to take the risk,” Johnson says. “Put it out there and if things go wrong, as long as I learn from the experience I get to go again.”

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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