supersoaker

The Oral History of the Super Soaker

Prepare to get wet for this tale of how a NASA engineer accidentally invented the greatest squirt gun ever made — and changed summertime forever

This year marks the 30th anniversary of when the Super Soaker story truly began to take shape. Though it was conceived in 1982 and wouldn’t hit the market until 1990, it was in February 1989 when NASA engineer Lonnie Johnson first met with the toy company Larami to pitch his idea for a revolutionary new water gun.

Chris Bensch, vice president of collections at the Strong Museum of Play, home of the National Toy Hall of Fame: I have to say, Lonnie Johnson is probably the most seriously overqualified toy inventor I can think of. Most toy inventors have a bright idea; they have that “eureka” moment or they come up with something that they think is marketable or fun. But Lonnie certainly had more credentials than most.

Chris Barton, author of Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, a biography for young readers: Lonnie Johnson grew up in Mobile, Alabama. From a very early age he was a tinkerer; he loved taking things apart and putting them back together. Early on he was inspired by robots he’d seen on TV shows. These were just people inside robot costumes, but he built an air-powered robot in his teens called “Linex” and won in a science fair at the University of Alabama in 1968. This was less than five years after Governor [George] Wallace was at the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama and said this school isn’t going to be desegregated. So as a young, African-American inventor, Johnson certainly wasn’t made to feel welcome, and yet, he won that science fair. 

Gabriel Nyantakyi, die-hard Super Soaker fan and founder of the charitable organization Waterarms Over Firearms: While I didn’t know as a young black kid in Philly that my favorite toy — the Super Soaker — was created by a black inventor, when I became aware of it as an adult, it inspired me and the work I would end up doing. Now, when I visit children all over the world and tell them about the Super Soaker and how it was invented by a black man, it serves as a major source of inspiration, especially to children of color.

Barton: Following the science fair, Johnson would go from high school in Mobile to the Tuskegee Institute. From there, he would go back and forth between the Air Force and NASA with engineering jobs. Along the way, he also had his own workshop at home and would tinker in his off hours. 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.

The Prototype

Made from PVC piping and a two-liter glass bottle, the Super Soaker prototype spent years in development before it arrived on toy store shelves.

Barton: It took about eight years for the Super Soaker to come to market after that, so it had a long way to go, both to improve upon the prototype and also find a toy company that saw it as the terrific idea it was.

Ben Trettel, mechanical engineer and co-founder of Super Soaker Central: That prototype worked with what’s called a “pressurized reservoir” design. Basically, you’d have a bottle that you can remove — in this case it was glass, though once it hit toy stores it was plastic — and you put a certain amount of water in there, but you’d also leave some room for air. You screw the bottle back on and then the pump pumps air into the bottle, pressurizing the bottle. The water will then be forced out once you pull the trigger. This was the basic design for all early Super Soakers.

Bensch: I have to say, I give Larami props for taking a chance on this prototype that Lonnie was shopping around and was getting turned down by place after place. They were really willing to take a chance on this concept and to stand behind it.

The Production

In 1989, Larami was the least likely toy company to suddenly dominate the summertime, but thanks to a fateful meeting at the NY Toy Fair, that’s exactly what came to be.

Dan Watson, former VP of Marketing at Larami: Before the Super Soaker, Larami was essentially a rack toy company. What that means is, we were a low-end toy company that made Dollar-Store-type products. You know, the ones under $5 or usually under $1.

Al Davis, former Executive VP of Larami (excerpted from Davis’ book Super Soaker; Davis sadly passed away in 2015): The story I want to tell starts February of 1989 at the end of the annual American International Toy Fair. I was sitting in the Larami office and showroom in New York, thinking about what had happened over the last 10 days at the toy fair. How had the show gone? Did we do well? What was the next direction for us? At the time, my business partner, Myung Song, and I owned the Larami toy company. Our sales had not been as strong as they once had been, and I was thinking about what might help turn things around. Just then, our secretary came into the office and said an inventor was here to see us. Normally, Myung was the one who worked with inventors. I handled sales. But Myung wasn’t there. My secretary said, “Well, the guy’s here. Why don’t you meet him?” I turned around, and in the doorway was a small, thin, spectacle-wearing black man who looked like he was the saddest guy in the world. 

He had ample justification for being sad because he had spent the last five years trying to interest toy companies in his invention without any luck. I waved him over. He came into the office, sat down and told me he had invented a water gun that was the best thing since sliced bread. Two leading toy companies had already had turned him down. He was about to give up, but someone had suggested he talk to us. I asked him if I could see his invention. He didn’t have it with him, but I gave him a legal pad and said, “Draw it.” He’s not an artist, but he drew this big gun with a big bottle on top. It was very intriguing. It didn’t look like a real gun, which I liked. 

Ben Hemingway, Super Soaker fan and Hydrowar founder: Part of the reason Super Soakers did so well is because they look nothing like a real weapon. They’re these things with giant orange nozzles, and they’re made to look like these space-alien things. To be honest, when we were kids, my friends and I would cover them with black tape and stuff, but for how they actually looked, you can’t mistake them for a real gun.

Davis (excerpt from Super Soaker): I looked at the drawing of the gun and said, “Well, does it work?” He said, “Yes, it absolutely works.” We agreed that he would bring his prototype to our main office in Philadelphia the next week where our engineers and designers could look it over. The next Thursday, he showed up in Philadelphia holding a battered pink Samsonite suitcase that contained his gun. The gun was a strange-looking contraption of tubes and pipes, but when you pumped it up, it shot water. It really shot water. It was a WOW. 

Everyone was quite excited about it. One of the people we had arranged to take a look at Lonnie’s invention was an engineer named Bruce D’Andrade… [who] knew how to make toys; he was truly a genius. I turned to him while he was looking at Lonnie’s prototype and said, “Bruce can we make it?” I was concerned because I knew two other companies had turned it down. He said, “Yes, we can make it.” Then I said, “Bruce, can we make it to sell for $10 retail?” He said, “Absolutely not. There is no way you can make this gun to sell it for $10.” I said, “Bruce, it has to be $10. Over $10, we aren’t going to be able to sell it. At $10 it’s going to be fantastic. We’ve got to sell it for $10.” Bruce said, “Al, we can make it, but $10 is going to be very, very difficult.” Well, that’s all we needed to hear. We gave Lonnie a check for the rights to make the gun.

Super Soaker 50

The original Super Soaker landed on shelves in the spring of 1990 and made a splash in the marketplace bigger than anyone could ever have anticipated. 

Bensch: When the Super Soaker hit the market it was a quantum leap in squirt guns. It was better than anything that had ever existed before. Before the Super Soaker, water guns did a better job of dribbling water down to your elbow than they did squirting somebody even just two feet in front of you. It was a field that was sorely in need of technical improvement as it had been pretty much the same since the first water gun in 1916.

Davis (excerpt from Super Soaker): When the Super Soaker 50 hit the toy stores in spring of 1990, we couldn’t keep them in stock. They were absolutely flying off the counters. The deliveries would come into the stores, and the clerks wouldn’t even have time to put them on the shelves. They’d just take them out of the boxes and sell them to the kids waiting in line for them.

Bensch: Even though the Super Soaker was also astronomically higher in price — at 10 bucks when it came out — it was worth it. Larami also created TV advertising that made it visibly compelling. You got it right away — you immediately understood why this was going to revolutionize your backyard water battles. And amazingly, it did exactly what it said it would do. There are so many toys that don’t do that — I remember I begged for Operation one year for Christmas, and when I finally got it, I was like, “This is all it does?” The Super Soaker though, their sales prove that the people got it. By one statistic I saw, more than 27 million were sold in their first three years on the market. 

There was a quick rebranding early on, too. Originally, it was called the Power Drencher, but it got rebranded because there was a copyright conflict with another product on the market. It got renamed the Super Soaker, and as soon as those commercials hit, it became a must-have toy, especially in the early 1990s. 

Nyantakyi: I got a Super Soaker 50 and I’m not going to lie, as a kid, I was definitely affected by the marketing. I remember that first commercial they did where this kid was dressed just like The Terminator with the leather outfit — that was all I needed. The Super Soaker was just cutting edge. It outperformed everything out there, and that was empowering as a kid. 

“Wetter Is Better”

Not only did the Super Soaker prove to be a monster hit, it sustained its success through the 1990s and into the new millennium. 

Davis (excerpt from Super Soaker): People used to ask me, “How long is this Super Soaker craze going to last?” And I’d say, “It’ll last until something better comes along.” We made sure that the “something better” was always coming out from us. Our strategy was to constantly improve the product and to block knock-offs from entering the market. Every year we added new Super Soaker models to our line. The first year, in 1990, we produced the Super Soaker 50. The next year, in 1991, we came out with two new models: the Super Soaker 30 and the Super Soaker 100. On television, we only advertised the 50, but we wanted a higher and lower model in the stores as well. Surprisingly, people bought all three. 

Watson: When I joined Larami in 1993, Super Soaker was still going strong. I was brought in with a few other guys because Myung needed more input. They were in good shape at that point — they didn’t quite know what more to do with it, so he hired us just to see what we could do.

It was a pretty “macho” environment in that you had to say your piece or get out. It was a small group, and everyone was expected to contribute. The goal was to keep moving the line forward. Shortly after we came in, we developed the XP line and after that, the CPS line. Super Soaker drove the entire category of outdoor toys: Toys R Us would center all their ads around us, and Walmart would feature the special blaster we gave them as a giveaway for buying other products, and it worked! They gave away the older model Super Soaker, and it drove the sales of the newer ones. 

We sustained that, which is pretty unheard of in toys, a notoriously volatile market. You never think something is going to turn into an evergreen product because that’s so rare, but with Super Soaker, we kept it going, and that continued until my last day there in 2002. It was incredible.

Hasbro

The next chapter of Super Soaker came when toy giant Hasbro became interested in purchasing Larami.

Davis (excerpt from Super Soaker): In 1995, we sold the company… to Hasbro Inc., which at the time was the second largest toy company in the world. We realized that neither Myung’s nor my children were interested in taking over the business. Myung and I originally requested a contract under which we would stay on with the company for three years before retiring, but Hasbro insisted on a five-year contract. So we signed a five-year contract that gave us a five-year earn-out period. In the fourth year of that contract, they asked us to sign for an additional two years, which we did.

Watson: From what I understood, we were the second most profitable division of Hasbro, second only to Milton Bradley and no one was going to beat them. That’s one of the reasons they didn’t close us down when they bought us — they’d shut down Tiger and Kenner and moved them all to Rhode Island, but we got to stay open because we were making good money and putting it to Hasbro’s bottom line. They also knew they couldn’t replicate that because we were pretty efficient. During that seven-year period, we benefited because we were separate — we had our own sales force and everything, so we really got to be our own people and we got to make some really cool stuff.

Hands down, the best Super Soaker we ever made was the CPS 2000 in 1996. We so over-engineered that thing — it was wonderful! Up until that point, things hadn’t changed all that much since the Super Soaker 50. We had the Super Soaker 300, which had a backpack for more water capacity, and we had the XP line which refined the technology, but the CPS line was the top. With that one, Lonnie was consulted on it, but Bruce D’Andrade really developed it. We’d seen a lot of “water weenie” toys where water is pushed out of a rubber bladder, so we adapted that for the CPS line and made it really strong because no one wanted to screw this one up, especially when some were selling at retail for $30 to $50.

We upgraded the plastic to be stronger, the guts were stronger, the mechanism was built better, the bladder was so thick and powerful that it would last for years if you didn’t leave it out during the winter time. Everything about the CPS product line was superior to that of the earlier versions. I have CPS 2000s in my house today that still work. They were phenomenal.

The End of Larami

In 2002, Larami’s New Jersey office was shuttered and the Super Soaker’s operation moved to Rhode Island, along with the rest of Hasbro’s products.

Watson: When they moved things up to Rhode Island, myself and a guy named Harry Flynn were the last employees of Larami from the old days. We handed things off and went our separate ways. They were consolidating — I get it, that’s the nature of the business. I did have some reservations in that I felt Hasbro never totally understood what they had with Super Soaker. For one, it’s a contra-seasonal business — that means that whereas most of the toy business is centered around Christmas, we were off the toy shelves by September. Come April, you had to re-introduce the whole product line all over again. Every April, May and June we spent millions on TV ads. My Christmas was always the Fourth of July, and I don’t know if Hasbro understood that. 

Davis (excerpt from Super Soaker): The first year after we were gone, the Super Soaker volume dropped from $125 million to $25 million. We were told that as soon as we were out of the business, our competitors knew they could make the knock-offs and get them into the stores. They knew Hasbro wouldn’t enforce their patent rights as strenuously as we did. The problem was that Hasbro had so many great products to sell — all the great lines that Hasbro carries — and the Super Soaker was just one line to them. With us, there was really only one product. The Super Soaker to us was the company; that was what we lived and died for.

iSoaker, a pioneering Super Soaker fansite (excerpt): In the next years post-Larami, the Super Soaker brand seemed to struggle somewhat… It wasn’t until 2005 when the Super Soaker line featured some new models that water-blaster aficionados made note of, namely the Super Soaker Flash Flood and the Super Soaker Triple Shot…. 2008 marked the first year that the Super Soaker line had no new products that made use of the pressurized air technology that made them so successful in the first place. 

The Oozinator

Between 2002 and 2010, Super Soaker was in something of a transition phase. While they did see a decline, Super Soaker still led the water-gun market, and this period also brought about the strangest, most controversial product in Super Soaker history: the Oozinator.

Klim Kozinevich, toy designer: If you want a complete history of the Super Soaker, make sure you include the Oozinator. That’s definitely the weirdest Super Soaker ever. Talk to James Groman about it — he designed the Oozinator.

James Groman, toy designer: I didn’t design the Oozinator! I sculpted the Oozinator, which isn’t the same thing. I’ve been trying to get the record straight on that for over 20 years now.

It was back in 2005, I’d gotten a call from Brian Jablonski from the Super Soaker team to do the sculpture of the Oozinator, which he’d already done a design drawing for. When those first drawings came in, the concept was to make it look like the movie Alien, which you can see in the design of it. So, it was designed with that creature in mind, which I was really excited about — I thought it was a great idea. They also mentioned that it was going to be a slime launcher, which I also thought was cool. I guess I was picturing green slime. My only regret was that it didn’t have a face on it, which could have helped it later with the controversy that erupted. Maybe it having a face could have prevented that, I don’t know.

So I sculpted it and basically forgot about it for a few months. In 2006 I was back working at American Greetings on the new MadBalls line when a co-worker came up to me and said, “You’ve got to see this new toy from Hasbro, it’s X-rated!” Of course, I had to see it, and when he showed me the commercial I went, “I worked on that!” and then everybody just went wild.

It’s crazy to think how many lines of approval that commercial must have gone through to make it to television. What, like, 20, 30 people!? Are you telling me none of them noticed what this looked like? 

Honestly, it’s just a case where nobody really put it together. I mean, it was based off those H.R. Giger-designed aliens that are already kind of phallic in nature, and I guess no one was thinking of the pumping action. Maybe if it was dark black like the movie, people would have made the connection more. And if it had a face on it, maybe it would have looked more like it was spitting than what it ended up looking like. Then, of course, there was the white slime. Why white? But surely the commercial is the worst thing. That’s the thing that takes it over the top.

As soon as I saw the commercial, though, I went out and bought one. They stopped carrying it pretty quick because everyone was going crazy over it. It still sits on my wall at home where I put everything I’ve worked on, though it probably belongs on more of a “Wall of Shame.”

The Nerf Transition

In late 2009/early 2010, Hasbro placed Super Soaker under the Nerf umbrella of products. While Hasbro made the announcement along with a new line of products, many die-hard fans felt that this further diminished the Super Soaker brand.

Jonathan Berkowitz, Director of Global Marketing at Hasbro, taking to Business Wire in 2010: The Nerf-Super Soaker partnership provides our fans with the best of both blaster worlds. We’re excited to not only welcome a new addition to the Nerf family, but fuse two incredibly strong players in the sports action arena together to truly take water blaster play to the next level.

iSoaker (excerpt): 2009 was the disappearance of the “Super Soaker” brand, replaced now with “Nerf Super Soaker.” Borrowing heavily from the stylistic elements found in Nerf dart guns, the new Nerf Super Soaker line brought a more technical, serious look to the water blaster line, [though it] appears to continue the trend of sacrificing performance for styling.

Bensch: The toy market has changed in recent years. Unfortunately toy departments have gone away and morphed, and certainly with there being no more Toys R Us, with this vast acreage of toys, that retail shelf space has become much more competitive, especially for a seasonal toy, whereas something like Nerf sells year-round. 

Trettel: The decline of the Super Soaker has to do with the decline of the blasters over the past few years. The performance just isn’t like it used to be. There are dedicated fans still, though, that keep the Super Soaker legacy going.

Super Soaker Fandom

Starting with iSoaker and Super Soaker Central, the Super Soaker fan community may not be voluminous, but a dedicated core of nostalgia-loving Super Soaker fans keep the 1990s-era Super Soaker craze alive in a variety of ways.

Trettel: Super Soaker fandom has a few different aspects to it. For me, I’m more interested in the technology than anything else. I started Super Soaker Central back in 2003 in large part due to the lack of DIY information out there on how to make your own blaster, which is something a lot of fans are doing today. Additionally, there are a number of fans who modify their old Super Soakers. Some would do balloon mods, where a balloon is placed over the rubber bladder to increase the pressure. There are also nozzle modifications and modifications that add a backpack of water. Now, though, the consensus seems to be that any modifications should be rather modest, as you wouldn’t want to compromise the integrity of the weapon, which isn’t necessarily built to hold more water pressure.

There are also people who are basically collectors of the classic Super Soakers, and then there are the battlers, who comprise probably the largest portion of the community. 

Hemingway: I was about 11 when I was involved in my first big, neighborhood-wide water-gun battle. It was organized through my church, and shortly after that — when I was 13 — I started my website, Hydrowar, and we decided to do the battles annually. Eventually I started hosting these events myself and later on we created the Water Warfare League, which organizes these meetups that have happened up and down the East Coast and also in the Midwest. We’ve even done some in the dead of winter where, of course, no one wants to get shot by a blast of water. It’s funny, now I’m actually an army officer and the crazy thing is that the skills I learned from organizing those battles I actually use now. It taught me a lot.

Brian De La Cruz, organizer of Waterfight NYC: In 2011 I started hosting a water gun fight in Central Park. I’d been in one the previous year that was supposed to be annual but they didn’t do it again, so my cousin and I decided to do it ourselves. The first year ended up being so successful through Facebook that we decided to do it every year. In 2016 we had our biggest year, where about 60,000 people RSVPed to the event and I estimate about 10,000 people showed up. That was a fun year! I love this event because it’s something that everybody can do. We had people of all ages show up from all over the country. It’s really a wonderful event because we’re not looking for money or anything, we’re just about having fun.

Nyantakyi: I started Waterarms Over Firearms about seven or eight years ago. It started with my own love of Super Soakers as a kid, and when I rediscovered it as an adult, I began acquiring old Super Soakers at yard sales and eventually via Amazon and eBay. Then I’d organize events where I’d give them to children and spread the philosophy that this is a peaceful gun — a water-arm that actually has a life giving ammunition. My hope is to help change these children’s attitudes about guns. I’ve made a point of visiting children in places that are heavily affected by gun violence — many of which are children of color — and I let them know that this peaceful gun was invented by a black inventor and that they can use it to have fun and give life as opposed to taking it away. 

I‘ve been to regions all over the United States and have done events around the world. I was in Ghana back in January and Puerto Rico in December. Really, it’s just this year that the organization is beginning to take shape the way I’ve envisioned and I’m working on developing a STEM program from it. Honestly, it’s been inspiring and people have really connected to it, and it’s all about sending a peaceful message. 

2015 Induction Into the National Toy Hall of Fame

In addition to the fun and inspiration that’s still carried via the Super Soaker fan community, Hasbro continues to produce new Super Soakers — like the newly released Fortnite line of blasters — and while the glory days of the 1990s and the CPS 2000 are behind us, Super Soakers still dominate the water-gun market, according to industry experts. It’s due to this staying power that the Super Soaker was granted the highest honor a toy line can achieve.

Bensch: The Strong National Museum of Play is the biggest, most comprehensive museum of toys, games, and video games in the world. We’ve got half a million items in our collection, and every year, we draw almost 600,000 guests to our site in Rochester, New York.

Every year we get hundreds of nominations for different toys from literally thousands of people in the public. We have to boil those hundreds of nominations down to a dozen that we feel are worthy. The ones that get inducted have to have longevity and they have to have that iconic value. They have to have that recognition factor and they have to capture the best qualities of play, creativity, engagement, imagination and socialization. Toys also get into the Hall of Fame on innovation. The Super Soaker qualifies on all of those criteria, which is why we felt it was time for it to be inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.