The High-Tech History of the Super Soaker

Where NASA engineering meets water guns

Super Soaker
A very large Super Soaker looms over the landscape
Globalreset/Creative Commons

For many, spending summertime fighting it out with water guns was an essential part of growing up. And in the 1990s, the debut of the Super Soaker was, as the saying goes, a game changer. The Super Soaker’s range exceeded that of any of its contemporaries, and its distinctive design warmed the hearts of many a science fiction aficionado. 

Now, the history of the Super Soaker has been comprehensively recorded — and it’s one of a singular genius, and probably the only instance of a NASA-trained engineer using his extensive knowledge to change the world of toys forever.

It all began with Lonnie Johnson, whose life involved stints at the Air Force and NASA, and whose work literally involved multiple instances of space exploration. As one of the participants in MEL’s oral history of the Super Soaker puts it, Johnson is “the most seriously overqualified toy inventor I can think of.”

Johnson didn’t set out to redefine the water gun. Instead, the innovation at the heart of it came from an entirely different project: an ecologically-friendly way to keep things cold. As biographer Chris Barton puts it: 

In 1982 he had an idea for a cooling system for refrigerators and air conditioners that would use water and air pressure instead of freon, which is a dangerous, polluting chemical. To test this idea, he hooked up a device to his bathroom faucet, and when he tested it, he basically had a shotgun blast of water across the bathroom. It was so powerful that it made his bathroom curtains swirl — he thought to himself that this would make a great water gun.

Johnson spent years trying to interest toy companies in his invention. But once he did, the rest was — as the saying goes — history. Including the brief heyday of the Oozinator, which one oral history participant describes as “the weirdest Super Soaker ever.” That’s putting it mildly.

The history of the Super Soaker is a reminder that the narratives of how toys were made can be far more fascinating than one might expect. See also: the story of the rise and fall of the Super Soaker’s predecessor in the water gun zeitgeist, Entertech. The ups and downs of water gun fights aren’t the only instances of drama involving next-generation water pistols, after all. 

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