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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Building a Better Water Pistol

So, we’re on day number six of Black History Month, and I thought that for this and the next four Wednesdays, I would change things up a smidgen.  Oh, don’t worry...I’ll still be talking about toys and games over the next four weeks.  But the four subjects that I will be talking about are all toys, and innovations that were invented and perfected by African-American people. 

When I was doing the research in trying to find suitable topics for Black History Month, I was truly blown away over just how many everyday items were invented by people of African ancestry, and I was also equally impressed to see that so many ideas forever changed the way that we looked at pre-existing inventions.

Today’s subject deals with the latter subject.  You’ve all heard of the phrase “building a better mousetrap” right?  In this case, a man by the name of Lonnie Johnson did exactly that...only he didn’t use mousetraps.  He used a toy that children of all ages have played with for generations.

He invented a better water pistol.

True, this is the month of February, and unless you happen to live close to the equator or in the Southern Hemisphere, a water pistol is useless in the cold winter air.  After all, a water pistol with frozen ammunition is no fun to anybody...well, unless you wanted to throw it at them in hopes of knocking them out cold.

Not that I am openly RECOMMENDING YOU DO THIS!!!

But, after reading the story of Lonnie Johnson and how a simple addition to the water gun helped catapult it to become one of the 1990s most popular toys, how could I not talk about it?

Lonnie Johnson was born in Mobile, Alabama on October 6, 1949, and grew up always wanting to find out how everyday household appliances worked.  During his early childhood, he was often taking apart old, broken-down appliances to learn about how they worked, and by the time he graduated high school, he had already won the “Linex” competition by inventing a robot that he had built using scraps of metal and other assorted materials from the local junkyard.

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering in 1972 and an M.S. in Nuclear Engineering in 1974 (both degrees being earned at Tuskegee University), Johnson joined the United States Air Force, and became an Advanced Space Systems Requirements Officer at the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command based out of Omaha, Nebraska.  He moved from there to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where he helped develop thermodynamic and control systems for space projects.  He was responsible for some noteworthy projects such as working on the Galileo Jupiter probe and the Mars Observer project, but his finest work came in 1988, with the invention of the Johnson tube – a CFC-refeigeration system with a hydraulic heat pump...or as Johnson called it, Patent #4,724,683 – his seventh in an ongoing series.

Now, for non-science readers (and I readily admit to being one), this might seem like a whole bunch of gibberish or gobbledegook.  Yet, it’s important enough to mention because science was a key factor in how Johnson would reinvent the water pistol as we knew it.

It all began in the 1980s, when Johnson founded his own company (Johnson Research and Development).  In 1982, three years prior to the creation of his company, Johnson was inside his bathroom when a homemade sink nozzle began to shoot a steady stream of water clear across the room...and it got Johnson’s wheels turning inside his brain.  What if he took that technology and implemented it into a water gun, effectively doubling the power and the soaking ability of it?  Could it be done?

The answer, of course, is yes.

Johnson quickly figured out that by using pressurized air to force the water out of the water pistol’s nozzle, it would cause the water to shoot out the water with greater power, expanded range, and improved accuracy.  He immediately went to work on creating a prototype for his new and improved water gun.  With his partner, Bruce D’Andrade, Johnson worked on his creation for several years.

It wasn’t until November 1989 that Johnson had finished his prototype.  The name of the invention was something called a “Power Drencher”, and the water pistol did exactly what Johnson had expected it would do.  It used pressurized air to shoot water at a rapid pace, up to fifty feet away.  The patent for the Power Drencher garnered interest from the toy company “Larami” - a company that dedicated itself to manufacturing action figures, soap bubble toys, and water toys – and they started manufacturing the toys in 1990.

Sales during the first year that the Power Drencher was available for purchase were slow however, and it wasn’t until the following year that Larami decided that a rebranding of the product might help boost sales.

And so, in early 1991, the Power Drencher name was retired, and instead was rechristened as the Super Soaker...a name which has remained ever since.

And with the name change, came an aggressive marketing campaign.  Have a look at one of the original Super Soaker advertisements which dominated television during the early 1990s.

Over the next few years, Super Soakers began to fly off of toy shelves all over the world, and with the demand came several designs of the Super Soaker.  Below are a couple of the tweaks that were made to the original 1989 design (which was later renamed the Super Soaker 50).

Most models use either one of two possible propulsion systems.  The pressurized reservoir system has one reservoir for both air and water.  The water goes in first, and then air is forced in under pressure.  When the Super Soaker trigger is pulled, the air forces the water out of the reservoir. 

There are also Super Soakers that have separate for air, the other for water.  Water is pumped from the reservoir into the firing chambers, which compresses the air inside.  It exerts a force on the water, which provides the power to push the water through the nozzle when the trigger is pulled.

Now, as to which one is better, I’ll leave that to you.  I owned the model that had the pressurized reservoir system, and it worked beautifully, but I have also heard that Super Soakers that utilize the separate compartments are more powerful.  I haven’t had the opportunity to test that theory out, but I’m curious to know if that is the truth.

The Super Soaker was manufactured by Larami until 1995, when Hasbro bought out the company.  After 1995, all Super Soakers were made under the Hasbro name. 

The Super Soaker has since become an icon in the history of toys that have been made within the last twenty-five years, and in 2011, it won the award for “Outdoor Toy of the Year” at the American International Toy Fair in New York City.  And, I’m sure that the Super Soaker helped bring Lonnie Johnson a lot of fame and fortune.  Since the introduction of the Super Soaker in 1990, it is estimated that over fifty million Super Soakers have been sold, generating sales of well over $200 million!

So, what has Mr. Johnson done since reimagining the way that modern water pistols are made?

Well, remember how I said that in 1988, he had registered his seventh American patent?  That number has grown to over eighty patents, with a reported twenty more pending.  He has also written several research articles and publications on the subject of spacecraft power stations.  Johnson has won several awards and honours for his work in both entrepreneurship and inventing, and in 1994, February 25 was officially recognized as “Lonnie G. Johnson Day” in Marietta, Georgia.

So, the next time that you pick up a Super Soaker and use it to spray your bratty little brothers, the annoying kids who live next door, or that nasty woman across the street that shouts nothing but insults at sure to give your thanks to Lonnie Johnson...the man who built a better water pistol.

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