7 Lonnie Johnson: Inventor of the Super Soaker and Nerf Dart Gun

Amy Minervini

[The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level is: 9.58]

Lonnie Johnson was born in 1949 in Mobile, Alabama. Since he was naturally curious kid, his father taught him about electrical currents and how to fix things. He would later become an aerospace engineer. Johnson also had a knack for playing with rockets: “My parents’ support was a big deal,” he once told the Smithsonian Institute. “I played with rockets when I was a kid. One day I was making some rocket fuel on top of the stove. It ignited and could have nearly burned the house down. Instead [of yelling] my parents got me a hot plate and said ‘do that kind of stuff outside’” (Zakarin).

Picture of Lonnie Johnson speaking
Lonnie Johnson speaking at a lecturn

Fueled by a fascination with engineering and his parents’ encouragement, Lonnie was always experimenting with engines and mechanical technology throughout his childhood. As a teenager, he built a robot he called Linex out of scrap metal, which he entered into a prestigious science fair competition. His first-place win and excellent grades earned him a math scholarship to the famed Tuskegee University.

After graduating from college, he served in the United States Air Force and then later played a key role in many NASA missions. But on the side, he kept inventing: “One day, he was trying to make a cooling system that ran on water instead of Freon—a chemical that can damage the environment. While he was experimenting, he had an idea for a great water toy. That toy became the Super Soaker” (Bond).

Close up of the Super Soaker water gun

Super Soaker water gunA few years later, he helped a different toy company invent the Nerf dart gun. Johnson now runs his own research lab and started the Johnson STEM Activity Center in Atlanta. His non-profit center helps expose youth, specifically students of color, to STEM subjects and encourages these budding scientists to become future leaders.


Writing Prompts

Narrative: Imagine that you’re at an overnight or day camp. The camp counselors explain that the last day of camp always ends with a Super Soaker or Nerf Battle Royale. Write a story using at least two pieces of dialogue about this last day of camp and how your team did in the friendly competition. Did your team win, or did they lose but have fun? Also include some sensory details (see, hear, taste, smell, touch) about that day’s adventure. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.6.3

Informative: Lonnie Johnson was trying to design something else when he ultimately invented the Super Soaker. Walk your audience through a time when you started on a project and had a particular end goal in mind and then that project went sideways or in a new unplanned direction.  Were you nervous when things didn’t go as planned? What struggles did you encounter along the way? Were you proud, happy, or satisfied with how your ‘new’ project turned out? Explain.  CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.2

Persuasive: Have you ever noticed that toy guns are brightly colored and have an orange tip at the end? The reasons for these colorful markings is due to a federal law that requires that manufacturers of toy guns to ensure these toys do not look like or would not be confused with real firearms. Write a response that argues why these safety measures are important. Can you think of any other safety measures for toy guns like the Super Soaker or Nerf that could be added? CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.WHST.6-8.1

Creation/Application: Lonnie Johnson’s prototype for the Super Soaker was made with a 2-liter bottle. What other exciting things can you do with plastic bottles? Check out the different experiments you can do here and here. Make sure to always wear protective gear, have an adult supervising, and recycle any applicable materials afterwards.

Works Cited

Bond, Katherine G. “Lonnie Johnson (1949- ) [Children’s Edition].” BlackPast, 7 July 2021, www.blackpast.org/childrens-page/lonnie-johnson-1949/. Accessed 6 June 2022.

Zakarin, Jordan. “How Lonnie Johnson Invented the Super Soaker.” Biography, 26 Jan. 2021, www.biography.com/news/lonnie-johnson-invent-super-soaker. Accessed 6 June 2022.


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