Celebrating The Black NASA Engineer Who Invented The Super Soaker

The story of how Lonnie Johnson, an African-American inventor just inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame, beat the odds to create a water gun with seriously fun firepower.

Getting soaked
Getting soaked
Justin Wm. Moyer and Fred Barbash

WASHINGTON, D.C. â€" In 1989, years after coming up with a fancy water gun no one seemed to care about, Lonnie Johnson was at a crossroads. The inventor and engineer, who had worked with NASA on the Galileo mission to Jupiter, had been under pressure before. But, awaiting an interview with Larami, a toy company who could make or break him, he was young, gifted, black â€" and alone.

"Most of my career as an engineer, I was put in environments where I was the only person of color in the room," he later said.

Johnson went in to sell Larami on his strange-looking homemade water cannon. The executives' question: "Does it work?"

Sometimes, a powerful jet of water launched across an office is the best pitch. Johnson let fly. Soon, water covered a conference room wall.

The response: "Wow."

"At that point, I knew I had captured their imagination," Johnson said. "They could see what I had seen in the water gun all along."

Though he's already made millions, founded his own lab and company, been lauded as a historically significant inventor and hailed as a revolutionary toy maker, Johnson is now an official squirt-gun saint. The Super Soaker â€" that most-powerful squirt weapon, which transformed water battle in the same way the Gatling gun revolutionized warfare â€" has recently been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

"Fun with Super Soakers yields several dividends: exercise in the chases and brain-training while calculating vectors to moving targets and improvising tactics on the fly," Chris Bensch â€" vice president of collections for the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., which runs the hall of fame â€" said in a statement. "Getting soaked in the process adds up to good, clean fun."

(The other inductees included the puppet, no particular brand â€" just the simple puppet â€" and the game Twister.)

For Johnson, it was just another honor in career that began in the hard-scrabble days of segregated post-World War II Alabama. He was the third child of six; in Mobile, his family struggled constantly to get by. His mother worked in a laundry and as a nurse's aid; his father was handyman and a civilian driver at an air force base. Both picked cotton on Johnson's grandfather's farm. There would be no fancy store-bought toys, so Johnson's father taught him to tinker. The pair shot chinaberries out of bamboo shoots.

In Johnson's all-black high school, the kid called "Professor" found no encouragement. Even when Johnson, part of the only African-American team present, won a science competition with a robot powered by compressed air at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, he was shuffled out the door.

"The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition," Johnson said, "was "Goodbye" and "Y'all drive safe, now.""

A degree at Tuskegee University, where Johnson sought to follow in the footsteps of famed inventor George Washington Carver, led to a career in the Air Force and a stint at NASA. But even while designing missions to Jupiter and Saturn, Johnson was messing around at home with heat pumps that wouldn't depend on freon, a greenhouse gas.

Lonnie Johnson, former NASA engineer, invented the Super Soaker water gun.

â€" capital B project (@Bcapitalized) November 5, 2015

In 1982, he saw the light. But the light wasn't directly related to notions of environmental sustainability.

"I was working on a heat pump that used water as a working fluid," he once told Popular Mechanics, "and I made some jet pumps for it. I accidentally shot a stream of water across a bathroom where I was doing the experiment and thought to myself, "This would make a great gun.""

Space would have to wait.

"I decided, "Well, why don't I, you know, put the high-tech science stuff on hold for awhile and go work and see if I can develop a toy that's something that anyone could appreciate?" he said.

The design did not come immediately.

"The original one that I first made actually had the pressurized water and the air inside a Plexiglas body," he said. "After a number of iterations, I eventually put the bottle on the top."

Seven years later, Larami signed on. Within two years, the Super Soaker â€" which, at up to $14, cost about 14 times more than a water gun â€" brought in $200 million in sales, becoming the No. 1 selling toy in America, even with limited advertising. Soon, even Johnny Carson was wielding one on-air. Sales by 2007: $1 billion.

"I started to see the royalty checks start to ramp up," he said. "... I said, "Wow, this is doing okay."" He added: "My life had changed permanently."

But where the Super Soaker went, trouble followed. There were reports of the water weapons being loaded with bleach. And, in Boston, one was implicated in an altercation that ended in real-life gunfire.

"It got really serious," Johnson said in 2009. "At one point I got a phone call from a news reporter. They said, "Mr. Johnson . . . I understand that Super Soakers are being used in drive-by shootings.""

Johnson wasn't worried.

Water fight in Vilnius, Lithuania â€" Photo: Augustas Didžgalvis

Indeed, the Super Soaker survived the controversy. But, before long, Johnson was embroiled in a lawsuit with toy giant Hasbro, who purchased Larami, over unpaid royalties. The suit was settled through arbitration in 2013 â€" Johnson took home $73 million.

Much of his fortune, however, has been invested back into his company, Johnson Research and Development. Johnson has worked with Nerf dart guns, yes. But he's also on the hunt for more efficient solar power and rechargeable batteries. According to the company's Web site, Johnson is "a technology company that has the creative culture and radically innovative atmosphere of a toy company."

In other words: beyond the Super Soaker, into the unknown. Inventors, after all, must keep chasing wild dreams and crazy notions.

"Persevere," Johnson advised inventors not long after the Super Soaker debuted. "That's what I always say to people. There's no easy route. Nobody's going to step in and dump a lot of money and make it easy. Unless you have a lot of money, you have to pay your dues and make a personal sacrifice."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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