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Toy inventor Lonnie Johnson poses with his creation "The Super Soaker" outside his Marietta, Ga., office  Nov. 12, 1998.  Johnson, who once worked for NASA, hit on his idea for the high-powered water gun while trying to invent a heat pump that would use water instead of Freon.  (John Bazemore/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Toy inventor Lonnie Johnson poses with his creation "The Super Soaker" outside his Marietta, Ga., office Nov. 12, 1998. Johnson, who once worked for NASA, hit on his idea for the high-powered water gun while trying to invent a heat pump that would use water instead of Freon. (John Bazemore/AP)

I've been on Reddit for a few years now and one thing I really like about the community is that, from time to time, people geek out about something, be it a book, or movie, or toy — and then the creator shows up in the thread and joins the conversation. Like when, say, Arnold Schwarzenegger gives a dude some really good advice... so great!

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This week's episode focuses on someone who is not as famous as Schwarzenegger is, but is just as cool. Maybe cooler? If you were a kid or teen in the 1990s, you almost definitely used his invention or at least knew about it.

That's right, we're talking about Lonnie Johnson, AKA the inventor of the Super Soaker. He's a Reddit fave.

He's also a Redditor himself! (if you click on "more comments" you can see his response to u/fattysausagegut).

But just who is Lonnie Johnson? For starters, he's a guy who nearly burned down his house when he was 12 while trying to make rocket fuel. As a kid, he took his siblings' toys apart and would put them back together again. He was fascinated by how things worked.

When he was in high school, he was also a trailblazer, making inroads at a science fair in 1968 where he and his fellow classmates represented the only black school invited. Johnson was confident in his project — a robot named Linex. Linex was 3 1/2 feet tall and had a propane tank for a torso, movable arms made out of scrap metal, wheels for feet and a reel-to-reel tape recorder brain, controlled by a walkie-talkie remote.

Spoiler alert: Johnson won first place.

After attending Tuskegee University, he went on to work at the Air Force Weapons Lab where he helped develop the stealth bomber program. Then he went to the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA. His first assignment was as the power engineer for Galileo, the aircraft sent to Jupiter in 1989.

No matter his day job, he always had side projects he worked on at home.

"I was trying to design a heat pump that would use water as a working fluid instead of Freon, because Freon is bad for the environment, it was destroying the ozone layer, it was a big deal [and] everyone was talking about it," says Johnson. "So I decided, well what could be more environmentally friendly than water as a working fluid?"

While experimenting with some nozzles, Johnson says he shot a stream of water across the bathroom into the tub. The stream was so powerful it made the curtains sway.

"I thought to myself, jeez, it would be really nice to have a high power water gun. It felt really, really good holding a powerful stream in my hand," he says.

Eight years later, the "Power Drencher" hit stores. It was soon rebranded as the "Super Soaker" and sold 20 million units that first summer. To put that in perspective, "Hatchimals" is one of the most popular toys in recent years and sold just 2 million units in 2016.

Johnson's Super Soaker technology was also used in Nerf guns, and both have earned Johnson lots of money. He now has his own company, Johnson Research & Development. They focus on the next generation of energy technology, and he's currently working on an engine that converts heat into electricity.

He also started a non-profit, Johnson STEM Activity Center, that provides STEM education and robotics activities for underserved students in Georgia.

"The way I like to describe the importance of this is that if it were not for inventors we'd all be living in caves," he says. "So I think it is important — just as important as any other discipline — and I think I think kids need to understand that, particularly when a lot of kids are convinced that the only way out is through sports and entertainment. There are other viable paths to success."

Meghan B. Kelly Twitter Digital Producer
Meghan is a digital producer for WBUR.

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