How 'Lost in Space' led to the invention of the Super Soaker
A boy trying to build his own B-9 led to a lot of happily drenched children.
Image: AP Photo/John Bazemore
One day when he was a teenager, Lonnie Johnson was carrying a load of sheet metal home on his bicycle. A police officer took notice and pulled him over. Johnson was a black youth, and this was in the mid-1960s in southern Alabama. He was worried. The officer asked him just what the heck he was up to. Johnson told the man in uniform he was building a robot, just like he saw on TV. The policeman escorted the boy home, where Johnson showed off his work in progress. Indeed, he was building a working robot out of junkyard scrap.
The robot was a chest-high, rectangular box with round eyes like reels of tape. His articulated arms bent like miniature cranes. An antenna projected from its head. The thing didn't look much like B-9, but it was inspired by the robot on Lost in Space. There was one major difference. The B-9 robot on Lost in Space was merely a fiberglass costume — an expensive one at that, costing around $70,000 — and it was operated by a former stunt double named Bob May. Johnson believed it was an actual robot, though.
His own robot, dubbed "the Linex," was powered by a tank of compressed air inside its body. Johnson was no stranger to mechanics. Neighborhood kids called the amateur engineer "the Professor," perhaps inspired by Gilligan's Island, as he could build go-kart engines from junk. One time, he almost set fire to his house cooking up rocket fuel in the kitchen.
Linex took the top prize in the 1968 Junior Engineering Technical Society science fair at the University of Alabama. Johnson received a scholarship to Tuskegee University, where he earned degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering. Afterward, the brilliant young man joined the U.S. Air Force, where he worked on the stealth bomber, and later joined NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Yet it would be compressed air, just like the lifeforce of Linex, that made him famous.
The inventor continued to tinker in his spare time. He designed an uncommonly powerful water gun, with streams of water propelled by pressurized air. He tested it in his bathtub. His young daughter, Aneka, gave it a go and handily defeated her friends in water gun battles. Johnson called his toy the Power Drencher. After a patent and a little rebranding, it would become known as the Super Soaker.
Who knows what might have happened, had he not dreamed of building a walking, talking robot years ago? Science fiction matters when it comes to science reality.