Back in 1989, Lonnie Johnson walked into a conference room with executives from toy company, Larami, and once there, he pulled out the gun he had stocked within his pink suitcase. The next moment would change his life forever.
He pressed the trigger of the gun, and it happened: a flurry of water propelled out from the gun's nostril and slammed into a far away wall. Johnson had just demonstrated his newest invention, which the world would later come to know as the Super Soaker. “At that point, I knew I had captured their imagination,” Johnson says in an interview. “They could see what I had seen in the water gun all along.”
Before Johnson's engineering—which included him making his own parts from PVC pipe and pexiglass—water pistols were only able to shoot out thin streams of water from a tiny compartment, which meant constant reloading.
Soon, Johnson made an appearance with his toy on the iconic Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and soaked sidekick Ed McMahon in front of millions on television. Within a decade, the Super Soaker had sold more than 200 million.
Most of my career as an engineer, I was put in environments where I was the only person of color in the room.
Before his invention, Johnson had worked with NASA, helping send the Galileo space probe to Jupiter, one of the great accomplishments of space exploration. As an African American, the pressure that came from being in a field where minorities were as rare as a blue moon was something he couldn't easily ignore. “Most of my career as an engineer, I was put in environments where I was the only person of color in the room," he says.
Sadly, it was something he'd become accustomed to.
While at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa in 1968, Johnson had joined a science competition where he was the only black student competing. Just a few years earlier, Alabama Governor George Wallace had tried to keep two black students from enrolling by standing in the entrance of the school's auditorium. Race and civil rights were a hot issue across the entire nation, but you could say it was a full on blaze in places like Alabama. Johnson won the competition for his work on a compressed-air-powered robot, and took home $250 and a plaque. "The only thing anybody from the university said to us during the entire competition," Johnson remembers, "was 'Goodbye' and 'Y'all drive safe, now.'"
Now, more than two decades after his invention became one of the most popular toys of the 90s, Johnson is hard at work on something else that will benefit many: energy. Johnson is working with scientists from Tulane and Tuskegee universities trying to find out ways to change heat into an energy source, which would make solar panels more efficient and affordable.
With his invention is still going strong decades later, it looks like Johnson is as well.
[via The New York Times]