Magic word is ‘persevere,’ Super Soaker inventor tells Pittsburgh students
There’s something satisfying about shooting a high-powered stream of water.
Aside from firefighters, that feeling wasn’t readily available until Lonnie Johnson invented the Super Soaker toy water gun in the 1980s.
Johnson, now 70, of Atlanta, invented the Cadillac of water guns accidentally, he said Thursday. He was at home working on an environmentally-friendly heat pump that used water. He shot a stream of water from a hose that was part of the pump and enjoyed the experience.
— Tom Davidson (@TribDavidson) November 14, 2019
He put the heat-pump project aside and decided to work on creating a high-powered toy water gun. The Super Soaker was born.
But it took time and a lot of perseverance, Johnson told elementary students Thursday at Pittsburgh Woolslair K-5 school in Bloomfield.
It took nearly a decade from the time Johnson conceived the idea for the Super Soaker in the early 1980s until he received the patents for it and found a company to produce and market the toy.
“Persevere” is the magic word that can create success, Johnson told the kids.
It’s something he’s learned in a lifetime of being an engineer and inventor — that started in part because he was told he wasn’t cut out to be an engineer.
That’s what happened when Johnson was tested in high school, but it only made him more determined.
He created a robot that ended up winning a competition at the University of Alabama.
Johnson ended up studying engineering at Tuskegee University, joining the Air Force and enjoying a successful career as an engineer who helped develop the B-2 Stealth Bomber. He also worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn.
But it’s the Super Soaker that’s given Johnson fame and fortune.
That was the story the kids at Woolslair wanted to hear about. They’ve been learning his story in advance of his visit and were gifted a copy of his book “Whoosh!” which details the story of the Super Soaker.
The students were familiar with Johnson’s life story. They asked him about a boyhood accident where he nearly burned his family’s home down trying to make rocket fuel in the kitchen.
Johnson was heating up a mixture on the stove when it got too hot and ignited. He was able to put the fire out, but he was fearful for the moment when his father came home and learned what happened.
He put on two pairs of pants to cushion the whooping he expected.
Instead, Johnson’s father was understanding of his son’s need to experiment. He bought him a hot plate, and told him to produce the rocket fuel — outside on cement, away from the house — Johnson said as the kids took it all in.
Johnson urged the students to consider careers in science and technology. He noted that while only a select few people can excel in athletics and entertainment, all it takes for someone to be a success as an inventor is to come up with a new idea or way of doing things.
“I wish I could be around to see some of the things you come up with,” Johnson said.
He was brought to Pittsburgh by RE2 Robotics, a Lawrenceville-based firm that named its fabrication lab in Johnson’s honor.
Johnson’s visit to the school is the start of a working relationship between RE2 and the school, according to Jess Pederson, the company’s marketing and communications director.
Correction: RE2 Robotics is based in Lawrenceville. An earlier version of this story had the incorrect neighborhood.
Tom Davidson is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tom at 724-226-4715, [email protected] or via Twitter .