The man who invented the Super Soaker wants to make a positive impact on the new generation of engineers.
Lonnie Johnson is using his nonprofit to help fund high school robotics teams, NBC News reported Thursday. One team he helps, DISCbots, is made up of refugees from nine countries. The team is in its second year and has already qualified for a worldwide robotics tournament in Texas.
“If I can have a positive impact … clearly it’s something I want to do,” Johnson said.
The inventor, who grew up in Mobile, Alabama, during the Jim Crow era, became interested in engineering as a youth, according to BBC. He built a robot for a fair held by the Junior Engineering Technical Society at the University of Alabama during his senior year of high school in 1968. The only black student in the competition, Johnson won first place for his robot, Linex.
After graduating from Tuskegee University, he went on to work for the U.S. Air Force, and then became a rocket scientist at NASA. While testing a water pump he designed, he came up with his billion-dollar idea, he told NBC News.
“I thought to myself, ‘Geez, this would make a neat water gun!’” he said. “At that point I decided to put my engineering hat on and design a high performance water gun.”
The toy first went on sale in the 1990s. Johnson went on to create other toys, including the NERF gun. He also created a ceramic battery and hair rollers that set without heat, among other inventions, according to Biography.com.
He recently visited his high school alma mater to speak with students about engineering.
“Kids need exposure to ideas, and they need to be given an opportunity to experience success,” he told BBC. “Once you get that feeling, it grows and feeds itself ― but some kids have got to overcome their environments and attitudes that have been imposed on them.”