Investors Business Daily: How Super Soaker Inventor Lonnie Johnson Doused The Competition

by Chris Woodyard for Investor’s Business Daily

Lonnie Johnson, 74, invented the super-popular Super Soaker. (Chris Woodyard)

Lonnie Johnson holds more than 130 patents for everything from rechargeable batteries to a wet diaper detector. But patent number 4591071 for a newfangled squirt gun seals Johnson’s place in history like no other.

The patent would evolve in further filings into a “pinch trigger hand pump water gun with nondetachable tank.” Every kid knows it today as the Super Soaker.

It marked a quantum leap forward in water guns. This gun shoots a dousing stream 30 feet or more. The Super Soaker also racked up more than $1 billion in sales and more than 200 million have been sold, according to the Strong National Museum of Play.

The toy made it possible for Johnson to eventually leave his engineering positions for the U.S. Air Force and NASA. That gave him time conjure up new products and technologies full-time.

Johnson became far more than the sultan of squirt. These days, his Atlanta-based companies are working on solid-state batteries that could revolutionize energy storage in concert with a unique technology to convert waste heat back into usable power.

His secret? Never give up on an idea. Johnson sums it up in a single word: “persevere.”

“You tell Lonnie it can’t get done and Lonnie will make sure it gets done,” said James Howard, executive director of the Black Inventors Hall of Fame based in Wharton, N.J. He hails Johnson, one of the hall’s inductees, as a “paradigm breaker.”

Johnson was also installed in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, based in North Canton, Ohio, and heads his technology incubator Johnson Research & Development. He’s a success now, but he’s the first to tell you it was never a smooth ride.

Start Early

Johnson endured setbacks, turndowns, doubters and endless delays in his quest to bring fascinating new products to market. What allowed him to maintain his focus despite the hardships is an endless curiosity that emerged growing up in Mobile, Ala. He could never stop trying to figure out how to solve a problem.

The third of six children in a close-knit family, Johnson loved to tinker, take toys apart to see how they worked, and repair small appliances.

“I had screws and bolts and parts and things” taking up a chunk of the kitchen, he said. His father, a church deacon, and mother, a hospital nurse’s aide, didn’t mind the mess — or at least put up with it for the sake of their precocious son — even when an ill-fated attempt to make rocket fuel on the kitchen stove potentially could have gone awry and burned down the house.

Johnson’s first breakthrough came in high school when he won a science fair by constructing a robot powered by a combination of compressed air and batteries. The experience of trying to find new ways of using power sources and combining them would guide his career for decades.

His interest in science took him to Tuskegee University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, a master’s degree in nuclear engineering and later was awarded an honorary doctorate in science.

Entering the professional world, Johnson started his career as a research scientist for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In the Air Force, he worked on stealth technology and nuclear technology, and then became a spacecraft system design engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., devising components for the Galileo mission to Jupiter.

Make The Most Of Spare Time

While pursuing his engineering career, Johnson never stopped hatching ideas for inventions in his spare time. His projects were strewn around the house, but none caught fire in a big way. Then one day came the moment that would change his life.

Johnson had rigged a hose to a bathroom sink faucet as part of some experiments he was hoping would lead to a more environmentally friendly heat pump. “I shot a stream of water across the bathroom and thought a high-performance water gun would be a lot of fun.” The secret was a capacious water tank combined with air pressure to propel the torrent farther any previous squirter.

Easier dreamed than done. The discovery sent Johnson on a sojourn to perfect the product and try to get his novel water gun to market. He tweaked the design, then pitched toymakers and investors.

Endure Setbacks

Inventing involves overcoming stumbling blocks and obstacles that would otherwise bring a project to a dead stop. Johnson would search for solutions day or night — lying in bed, going to the library to dig through more research, the laboratory for further experimentation, or simply scratching out rough calculations on the back of an envelope. “I had to find ways to work around those things I couldn’t figure out,” he said.

When toy companies spurned the Super Soaker, Johnson entertained the notion of striking out on his own. But starting a toy company from scratch was impractical: It would cost $200,000 to make the first 1,000 water guns.

He had figured that a marvelous invention wouldn’t need a sales pitch — “put it on the table and let it speak for itself.” But it didn’t always work that way. Potential investors would get excited, then not follow through. Some were “shysters,” trying to lure Johnson into paying them money for little expected result.

“It took seven years from the time I got the idea to when I actually had a deal that was successful,” he said.

Know Success Will Find A Way

Eventually, toymaker Larami gave the Super Soaker a chance and turned it into a bestseller. Plaything giant Hasbro (HAS) bought Larami in 1995 and, along with it, the Super Soaker. Today, the water-gun-on-steroids is part of the Nerf lineup.

The Super Soaker wasn’t the only idea Johnson pitched at the time. He was juggling a half-dozen projects that he thought could help him realize his dream of independence from a traditional job.

“I felt any one of those projects would’ve been enough to support me and my family. And one by one, they all got delayed,” he said.

He learned early on to be flexible. If one direction didn’t work, try another. Finding the ultimate solution may involve modifying a goal, “shifting gears and taking a different direction.”

Learn From Disappointment

Some promising inventions didn’t catch on. They might have been hard to explain to potential buyers, not simple like the Super Soaker. Or would-be makers didn’t readily see their brilliance or usefulness.

One that Johnson would have loved to have seen come to market was one of his first patents for a digital distance-measuring instrument in 1979. It was designed to precisely measure distance using an electronic circuit that read a binary code from an optical sensor.

He said, in retrospect, that he wishes he spent more time developing it, but the idea came at a busy time in his life when inventing was still a hobby and he had to devote himself to his day jobs.

“I would have loved to have been the one to bring it to market,” he said. “The technology came to market in DVDs and CDs. Everyone ignored my patents.”

Then there was the wet diaper detector. As a father of four himself, Johnson disputes the notion that nature gave all babies their built-in wetness detector — a crib-shaking wail. To aid tykes who aren’t as boisterous in announcing it’s time for a change, Johnson tried to create a battery-operated device that alerts parents to a damp diaper. No takers, he said. The product was deemed too expensive.

Combine Ideas

That’s OK. With the Super Soaker a runaway success, Johnson, now 74, devotes himself to inventions that could help save the warming planet. To do it, he employs a strategy he learned long ago: combine technologies to create something new.

As Johnson puts it: “Great ideas are amalgams of several things that are out there,” Johnson said. “But no one ever thought of putting them together.” But, he adds, finding the ultimate solution may involve “shifting gears and taking a different direction.”

For Johnson lately, the two technologies that matter most involve a next-generation power source and a way to tap more energy from power plants.

The power source is solid-state batteries, which he sees as the successor to the lithium-ion batteries that now power everything from flashlights to Teslas. He’s working on them through his Johnson Energy Storage spinoff.

The other focuses on a potential breakthrough in energy conservation, the Johnson Thermal Electrochemical Converter, aimed at turning waste heat into electricity using hydrogen. It’s similar to the fuel cell used to power cars, only it doesn’t use oxygen.

Change The World

As much as 60% of the energy from a nuclear power plant dissipates as waste heat, he said, adding he believes his invention could increase the output of the plant by 30%. He says his JTEC Energy spinoff is making progress.

Those who know him have faith he can pull it off.

Transplanting knowledge gained though his many inventions, including the Super Soaker, is “allowing him to do the research that he’s really passionate about, so we think that’s really great” said Rini Paiva, the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s executive vice president for selection and recognition.

But passion is just part of it. To Johnson, it’s all about “not giving up.”

Lonnie Johnson’s Keys

  • Inventor of the top-selling Super Soaker squirt gun, plus holder of more than 100 other patents.
  • Overcame: Technical challenges to create new inventions and hurdles to commercializing ideas as products.
  • Lesson: “Great ideas are amalgams of several things that are out there. But no one ever thought of putting them together.”