I crouched as low as I could and crawled along the side of the brick stone building. My gun in my sweaty palms and senses on hyper alert. All I could hear were my own heavy breathing and the faint yelling of children somewhere in the distant background. I was inching my way toward the corner of the building so I could get a sense of where my assailants were. I had lost track of my team a while ago. I could only assume they had all been eliminated and I was the last survivor. I took a few more deep breaths and kept crawling towards the corner.
My gun felt much lighter now--fifteen straight minutes of firing will do that. If I could duck into the building, I could regroup and think of a new strategy for survival. I reached the corner of the building and peered around it very carefully. There was nobody in sight and just one old Honda parked in front of the building. I could get a better look around from behind the car. I got to my feet and made a mad dash for the car.
Whomp! Phoosh! Splash!
I felt like I got hit from a hundred different angles. I crashed to the ground and rolled over on my back in defeat.
They got me.
I could already hear the cackling of Jeff Larson and his stupid 5th grade gang, taunting me with “You’re all wet, sucker!”
It wasn’t a fair fight at all. My little pee shooter was no match for his Super Soaker 50. The arms race was on. I had to convince my parents to buy me one--somehow. Jeff’s lunchtime tyranny had to end.
So began my fascination with the Super Soaker and all its models. Beyond the SS50, there were models like the colossal SS300 with its three nozzles and 6-liter tank and the crazy Artic Blast which chills the water stream as it shoots out. Who thought up all this stuff, I wonder?
Enter, Dr. Lonnie Johnson.
To describe Dr. Johnson as an engineering heavyweight would be the understatement of all understatements. The man is a nuclear engineer who spent over a decade working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. As a life-long tinkerer and maker, the Super Soaker was more like a side hustle for him until it blew up, becoming the most successful toy in America almost immediately.
Finding his Passion and Immersion in the domain
Lonnie Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama during the last few decades of state-enforced segregation in the southern United States. Although the cultural climate could be hostile to a young black boy like Lonnie, he grew up in a nurturing home where his father, a World War II veteran, taught Lonnie how to tinker with electrical gadgets.
Once his passion for gadgetry was ignited, Lonnie didn’t hold back. In 1968 he built a pneumatic robot and represented his all-black high school at the Alabama state fair. Unsurprisingly, to those who knew him, Lonnie won first prize for his creation. He went on to attend Tuskegee University where he earned mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering degrees before landing a job with the US Air Force and subsequently, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs in 1979.
He completely immersed himself in his domain, learning and soaking up as much knowledge as he could. Such dedication rarely exists without a driving passion to fuel it. Passion seems to fortify and enable a certain resilience against hostile environments, obstacles and the inescapable moments of drudgery that often accompanies deep work.
Johnson is a natural tinkerer and was always working on personal projects in his spare time. As Johnson tells it, he was working on a new type of heat pump that used water as a coolant rather than Freon. As he was testing out different nozzle designs, he hooked on up to a faucet and it shot water clear across his bathroom. To a non-playful mind, that probably would have been the end of it. Johnson, however, thought, “Hmm, that would probably make a really cool water gun?” And the idea was planted.
In their book, The Runaway Species, neuroscientists Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman propose a basic cognitive framework for understanding the way the brain synthesizes new information. Their framework identifies three basic strategies the brain uses: bending, breaking, and blending. These strategies are not mutually exclusive and often overlap, but I think Johnson’s thought pattern here was a good example of blending. Blending is when the brain combines two or more ideas or inputs in fresh and original ways. It is a powerful tool for creativity and innovation.
Johnson blended the unexpected event of his device shooting a stream of water across the bathroom, with his own playful memories of using a water gun, evidently unsatisfyingly. This new blended idea was compelling enough for him to actually create a prototype rather than simply discarding it as a nice thought.
Evaluation, Feedback and Collaboration
After Johnson created his prototype he tried selling the idea to several companies but was summarily dismissed by all of them, including Hasbro. Undaunted, or perhaps as a last resort, Johnson took his invention to the Toy Fair in 1989. There he was introduced to a small toy manufacturing company called Larami. After a brief demonstration, Larami agreed to license Johnson’s creation and the first Super Soakers hit toy stores in 1990.
Johnson said he thought about manufacturing it himself, however, the price tag for even a limited run manufacturing was too high for him at the time. That’s when he started looking for a manufacturing partner to license his idea.
Larami turned out to be a great collaborator for Johnson. Johnson admits that at the time he didn’t fully understand branding and marketing. And why should he, he’s a nuclear engineer. Early discussions with Larami’s owner resulted in the name we now know--the Super Soaker. Initially it was called the “Power Drencher” but licensing and marketing considerations caused them to change the name. Thankfully.
Following the success of the Super Soaker, Hasbro ended up buying Larami. Johnson kept on inventing and added to Hasbro’s product list with his creation of high-powered dart nerf guns.
Today, Johnson lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is still actively inventing and creating. He is founder and owner of two technology companies, Excellatron Solid State, LLC and Johnson Electro-Mechanical Systems. The former creates solid state battery technology and the latter is on the cutting edge of thermal-electrical energy production and transfer.
I told you he was an engineering heavyweight!
Even though I never quite got my comeuppance against Jeff Larson and his band of 11-year old malcontents, I have enjoyed countless hours of super-soaking fun since that day.