This being Black History Month, I figured I’d devote Fridays to Black inventors. And what better match for the theme of this blog could there be than Lonnie Johnson’s Super Soaker. These things basically defined childhood summer prestige for me–whoever had the biggest, coolest Super Soaker was king. When I got my first job (as a summer camp counselor) I bought this absolute unit of a Super Soaker. I had scrawny twig arms and could barely lift the thing when it was full, let alone pump it, but I felt like I was nigh unto a god.
Lonnie Johnson was an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He got his first squirt gun patent in 1986, followed by a handful more over the next decades. Here are a few that should look familiar:
Johnson is a huge success story, as intellectual property goes. He was the classic lone garage-workshop inventor who came up with a great idea, struggled for years to make it a reality, and hit on a big commercial success. He and his licensees were able to use his patents to maintain a monopoly over this style of squirt gun for many years, putting hundreds of millions of dollars in his pocket.
Plus, he gets to take badass pictures like this for the rest of his life:
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