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Super soaker

February 20, 2001

A public radio commentary

I know it's a cliche to say of an invention that it takes a rocket scientist, but it did take one to bring the squirt gun into the high tech world.

I'm speaking of the Super Soaker - the most popular toy of the 1990s. For those who haven't seen it, it's been described as "a squirt gun on steroids." It holds some two gallons of water, and can drench an opponent up to forty feet away - enough to send anyone crying back to mommy. It was invented by engineer Lonnie Johnson, who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. He'd designed, for example, the power supplies for the Galileo space probe.

One day he was experimenting with a new type of refrigerator that used water instead of freon. He hooked a nozzle to a faucet in his bathroom - as he turned on the water it shot across the bathroom, making air currents so strong his shower curtain started to swirl. His first thought, and I quote him here, was "Boy, this would really make the neatest water gun." His key squirt gun insight was to use pressurized air to drive the water through a narrow hole in the nozzle.

"From that point", Johnson said building a high tech squirt gun "was an engineering problem." Where the engineering came in was to come up with a way that "a small kid would be able to pump the gun up to a very high pressure." Johnson went to work in his home workshop.

Using a small hobbyist's lathe, he built a model out of PVC pipe, an empty plastic Coke bottle and plexiglass. Next up was test marketing: He let his daughter, age six, try it out on neighbors. The result: A great success, at least for her. Next Johnson had to interest a manufacturer.

He first approached Daisy Manufacturing, the maker of BB guns, but they passed on his idea after two years of discussion. In 1989 Johnson met with the Larami Corporation. He walked into the meeting, opened his suitcase, and pulled out his prototype of PVC tubing, Plexiglas and plastic soda bottles. A split second later, he fired a giant stream of water across the room. Larami's president had just one word: "Wow!" But would they sell? In the past a squirt gun sold for twenty-nine cents: Would any one pay ten dollars for a squirt gun?

The first year startled the industry. Sales took off when Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show used a Super Soaker to drench Ed McMahon. A year later, it was the most popular water gun in American retail history - sold not only by toy stores, but by upscale adult stores like Sharper Image. By the late 1990s about 250 million Super Soakers have been sold -- enough for each person in the United States.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises