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An American treasure. Revolutionary inventor. Spacecraft engineer. Holder of more than 140 patents. Creator of the No. 1 top-selling water toy of all time – the Super Soaker.
As Professor Jon Kappes of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University said to his patent law class students: “I hope after hearing from Dr. (Lonnie) Johnson today, when you close your eyes and picture the word ‘inventor,’ you’ll think of Dr. Johnson.”
Kappes, ASU Law intellectual property law lecturer and Center for Law, Science and Innovation faculty fellow, hosted Johnson on Oct. 21 in a compelling dialogue with ASU Law students. The former Air Force and NASA engineer discussed how he came up with the idea for the Super Soaker and how much continuing to invent, loving what you do and being persistent make all the difference in creating a lasting career.
“Invention is like producing a hit record — you never know what’s going to be a major success — and the Super Soaker was (my) hit in that regard,” Johnson said in the interactive Zoom discussion. “It’s very subjective. And it’s just a matter of timing what people like and what they’re ready for at that point in time.”
And that means you have to be persistent in your work, added Johnson, CEO and founder at Johnson Research & Development and CEO of Johnson Battery Technology.
“It's been quite a journey from my days as a small child as an inventor and working on a robot, to high school back in the ’60s, to working on outer-planetary spacecraft,” Johnson said. “I have an invention on the Galileo spacecraft that went to Jupiter.”
In fact, it was during Johnson’s time working on Galileo in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that he came up with the idea for the Super Soaker.
“I was at home and experimenting on my own ideas, and I was working on this heat pump that would use water as a working fluid and I hooked it up to a nozzle-like machine to my bathroom sink,” Johnson said. “The stream of water coming out of the nozzle was so impressive. I turned and shot the stream into the bathtub, and I thought to have a high-performance, high-pressure water gun would really be satisfying.”
So Johnson put the heat pump project aside and started building the water gun, leveraging his mechanics and engineering training.
“I got the idea in 1982 and it didn’t make it to market until ’91 and then became the No. 1 best-selling water toy – only about 10 years in the making. So I always say the key to success is perseverance,” he said, adding that inventing is about finding a good problem to solve. “Every ambitious project has useful results.”
Kappes, who mentioned his Super Soaker 200 was one of his favorite childhood toys, said Johnson’s story is a message for students to start developing their own ideas. “Now’s the time – you can begin inventing now. I don’t know many patent attorneys who don’t have their own patents.”
To inspire the next generation of engineers, Johnson’s nonprofit, the Johnson STEM Activity Center, is funding high school robotics teams and offering them a creative work space in the greater Atlanta region. He said the center reaches about 10,000 kids a year, and has a smaller number of kids who actually build robots at the center and compete on several teams in the first robotics program.
“It’s extremely inspiring for me to see these kids experience success building robots and doing things that they had not anticipated they'd be able to do,” Johnson said. “And the real benefit from that is that once they are successful, they internalize that — and that’s not something you can take away from a person. Realizing that they're able to do, and capable of doing, things beyond what they have been told up to that point is life-changing.”
Video by ASU Law