So, what do you do with your evenings if you’re an Air Force engineer and working on the Stealth Bomber during the day? Well, if you’re Lonnie Johnson, you invent a new type of high powered water pistol and give it to your daughter.
“I gave the plastic gun to my seven-year-old daughter, Aneka, and watched as she used it to play with the other kids on the airbase. They couldn’t even get close to her with their little squirt guns.”
The plastic gun turned out to be the prototype of the Super Soaker, the water pistol that transformed water fights around the world.
Lonnie Johnson had always loved to engineer things or, as he would tell the BBC in an interview, “I’ve always liked to tinker with things. It started with my dad. He gave me my first lesson in electricity, explaining that it takes two wires for electric current to flow – one for the electrons to go in, the other for them to come out. And he showed me how to repair irons and lamps and things like that. The kids in the neighbourhood took to calling me ‘the Professor’.”
‘The professor’ got a scholarship to Tuskegee University, famous for the Tuskegee Airmen, where he got a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and then graduated with a masters in nuclear engineering.
In 1975, he was called to active duty in the Air Force and worked on US space launches that used nuclear power. An analysis he did that identified a possible failure that NASA had overlooked caught their attention and he was invited to join the Galileo Mission, the unmanned spacecraft sent to study Jupiter and its moons.
It was here that work on the Super Soaker began. “So in 1982 you could say that I had a fun day job working on these spacecraft in Pasadena, California, but all this time I continued to tinker on my own ideas in the evening.
At that time I was experimenting with a new type of refrigeration system that would use water as a working fluid instead of ozone-destroying CFCs. One evening, I machined a nozzle and hooked it up to the bathroom sink, where I was performing some experiments. It shot a powerful stream of water across the bathroom sink. That’s when I got the idea that a powerful water gun would be fun! But it was months before I did anything about it.”
In fact it wasn’t until he re-joined the Air Force and relocated to a military base in Nebraska that Johnson would combine his work as first engineer testing the B-2 Bomber, the Stealth Bomber, with finishing his first prototype ‘soaker’.
As well as letting his daughter use it, he started to show it off around the base. “I took it to an Air Force picnic one day and a superior officer, a major, saw it and said, ‘What is that you got, Johnson?’ I said, ‘This is my water gun, sir.’ And he said, ‘It looks really strange – does it work?’ So I turned to him and shot him right between the eyes. After that, the picnic was over. Everybody was throwing cups of water, cups of beer and it just turned into a big free-for-all.”
Sensing its potential, Johnson wanted to manufacture the gun himself but, when he got a quote of $200,000 for 1,000 guns, he quickly decided he would have to partner up with a toy company.
There followed seven years of frustration and false starts. Then, in February 1989, Johnson went to the American International Toy Fair in New York and came across a company called Larami.
The then vice president, Al Davis, was interested – sort of.
“I can’t really review a product here,” he told Johnson, “but if you’re ever in Philadelphia, where our headquarters are, I’d be happy to talk to you. Drop in and see us… [but] don’t make a special trip.”
Despite this lukewarm response, Johnson decided he would follow up the lead and started work on a new prototype of the water gun. He used plexiglass and PVC piping, and instead of keeping water inside the gun itself, a two-litre soda bottle sat on the top and acted as a water reservoir.
Johnson picks up the story, “I remember sitting in their conference room with the president and vice-president of the company and some marketing people. I opened my suitcase, took the gun out and shot it across the conference room. And they said: ‘Wow!’ I knew that I had captured their imagination.”
The next challenge was one of commercialisation. This gun was way more complicated than the “little squirt guns” that were on the market, but after lots of work they brought the price down to $10. Even then, neither Johnson nor Larami were sure that anyone would pay anywhere near that amount for a water pistol.
In 1990, the gun first appeared in the toy shops. It was called the “Power Drencher” and despite no real marketing support it sold well. Based on this initial success, plans for a bigger push were made.
“The following year, we rebranded the toy the Super Soaker and did a big push on TV. That was the summer we sold 20 million guns, and I remember just staring at my royalties’ cheque in disbelief” recalls Johnson.
Further generations of Super Soakers followed and today more than 170 Super Soaker models have been launched, generating more than $1bn (£760m) in revenues. Johnson also went on to design the N-Strike range of Nerf dart guns, which used some of the same compressed air technology and earned him even more royalties.
And what has Johnson done with all those royalties?
“I didn’t buy a yacht or anything. I’ve spent the money on something much more interesting – to me, anyway. I have built a scientific facility in Atlanta, Georgia, which has about 30 staff”.
They are working on next generation batteries and engines, but Johnson still wants to tinker “I have a few ideas in mind – not toys, just consumer products that I know will be easy to manufacture and that will sell well. “
And the moral is, what may seem like a little idea can turn into a big brand success. Do you have a little idea with big potential?