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Lonnie Johnson, in some ways, could personify the ‘American Dream’

Lonnie Johnson, who created the Super Soaker water gun, was awarded $72.9 million this week from Hasbro to settle a royalty dispute via arbitration. It all goes back to a 2001 inventors’ dispute in which Hasbro agreed to pay Johnson royalties for products under the ‘Nerf’ brand, as well as 2-3 percent royalties off the Super Soaker gun. Johnson sold to Larami, which was eventually purchased by Hasbro, and Hasbro is now shelling out basically $73 million.

The history of the Super Soaker, perhaps best detailed here, is a classic Americana success story. In 1982, Johnson was working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the Galileo Mission to Jupiter; he wanted to create a high-performance, high-power toy water gun, but because the Jupiter work (rightfully so) took up more time, the process took about eight years. Johnson initially called it ‘The Power Drencher’ and he came into it while working on a heat pump that used water as opposed to freon. Within two years of its release and re-branding, the now-‘Super Soaker’ was a $200 million toy.

Johnson came from humble beginnings: his grandparents picked cotton, his father was a driver on Air Force bases, and his mother worked in a laundry. By 1989, he had founded Johnson R&D; by 2008, he was working on a way to cut solar costs essentially in half.

Johnson holds over 80 patents, including 20 additional patents that are still pending. It should also probably be noted that the man was fairly rich before; he made about $20 million personally off $1 billion in global sales for the Super Soaker. Most of that money he ultimately placed into energy research, too. (If you’re wondering about the best-selling toy of all-time, as I was when I started reading about Johnson, here’s one take, here’s another, and here’s a third.) Some have even claimed the Super Soaker is an elite toy because it helps get kids off the couch. (Variations on the theme should be avoided, though.)

I’m pretty into this story about Johnson. The man was clearly very smart (I mean, he worked for NASA on Jupiter missions), but in the process he created one of the more beloved (I think it’s fair to call it that) children’s toys of all-time — and now he’s getting paaaaaaiiiiiid even more than before. Johnson used his family’s hard work to get himself to a dynamic, interesting place. That’s awesome. I think that’s what the ‘American Dream’ is supposed to represent; the money is just a bonus. He seems to have done things the right way. Maybe this story is about karma, and not just scientists making fun toys.

In 2011, the Super Soaker was still winning Toy of the Year awards.

Ted Bauer

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