Of guns and gravitas… let’s celebrate a good soaking (August 2010 issue)

Of guns and gravitas... let's celebrate a good soaking (August 2010 issue)
Date:19 July 2010 Tags:, , ,

Take a good look at the man on the cover of this issue. He looks like a serious kind of guy, and that futuristic weapon he’s holding undoubtedly confers a certain gravitas. But hang on… isn’t that a teensy hint of a smile? And what the hell is that gun about?

Meet Lonnie Johnson – tireless inventor, advanced weapons expert, space probe project manager, nuclear engineer… and creator of a water gun that has made him a fortune (which might, of course, explain the smile).

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Lonnie was a hands-on kid who made his own toys and once (with his brothers) built a go-kart powered by an old lawnmower engine. Interested in anything and everything, he made his parents proud – although they were less than thrilled when he conjured up his own “rocket fuel”, which exploded and destroyed part of the kitchen. In high school, he built a remote-controlled robot from junkyard finds and odd components from household appliances.

After a stellar career in the nuclear industry, the US Air Force, Nasa and elsewhere (he picked up a Master’s degree in nuclear engineering along the way), Lonnie turned his attention to the development of a pressurised water gun that would be safe for children. Moonlighting from his job with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he produced one prototype after another, eventually coming up with a design that worked remarkably well; it was capable of shooting a jet of water nearly 15 metres.

After a few discouraging wakeup calls (injection-moulding companies told him it would cost a deal-breaking R1,6 million to manufacture 1 000 guns), he decided to go the franchise route. It was the right choice: inside a year, it became apparent that the world really, really wanted a formidably powerful water gun. Some 200 million were sold within 10 years, and retail sales of the Super Soaker now exceed R8 billion.

Where am I going with all this? For starters, Lonnie Johnson remained alert to possibilities (he was actually working on a heat pump experiment in his bathroom when the water gun idea came to him). Secondly, he had the courage – and the staying power – to pursue his dream. And thirdly, he never lost sight of the little boy in all of us.

This neatly introduces an important announcement – the second annual PM Inventors Conference. Following on the success of our inaugural event in Johannesburg, and in the interests of geographical fairness, we have decided to move this year’s conference to Cape Town. Our venue is the rather smart Sports Science Institute in Newlands, and the dates are 16 and 17 October (Saturday and Sunday morning).

We’ll be mailing invitations soon, together with details of the programme, but in the meantime, please keep an eye open for announcements on our Web site at www.popularmechanics.co.za/content/conference/inventors_2010.asp As before, we intend to make this event interactive, informative and fun. See you there.

You’ll find our 24-page Tool Guide inside this issue. In our introduction to the annual supplement, we make this bold statement: “Although you may not be aware of it, every cell in your body is urging you to grab a tool and fix things or make stuff.”

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)

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