It's not often a nuclear engineer invents one of the most popular toys of all time.
Super Soaker, recently inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., was the brainchild of Lonnie Johnson — who came up with the water toy idea in 1982 when developing a heat pump to preheat water entering residential shower heads.
At the time, Johnson was working on the nuclear energy innards of NASA's Galileo spacecraft that eventually orbited the planet Jupiter.
“I was working on my heat pump project at night and during the day I worked on Galileo,” Johnson recalled in a recent phone interview. He was trying to replace fluorocarbon heat exchange fluid with water and had hooked up the nozzle to his bathroom faucet when a water jet streaming across the room gave him the idea for the high-powered toy water blaster.
Johnson's prototype Super Soaker was made of PVC pipe, a PET bottle, nylon tubing and machined acrylic components. He licensed the design in 1989 to Larami Corp., now part of Hasbro Inc., and the toy rapidly became a hit. Sales have since approached $1 billion. The toy now is made in China from injection molded polystyrene with a polypropylene bottle. The concept also led to the Nerf water gun toys, which Johnson developed for Hasbro.