Hasbro Screwed The Super Soaker's Inventor Out Of Millions
The super soaker water gun was created by a NASA rocket scientist, Lonnie Johnson, who stumbled on the idea when trying to invent a new kind of heat pump. That's a fun fact, one that we've covered a few times before. But we forgot to tell you about just what a struggle it was to make the invention a success—and about how Hasbro cheated him out of tens of millions in royalties.
Johnson first came up with the soaker in 1982. He was working for the Air Force and for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory while also producing a few inventions in his spare time. The super soaker was an "instant hit" ... with children who saw it at his private demos, and with no one else. The world didn't exactly beat a path to his door.
He spent years taking his prototype to trade shows to get investors interested. Four years after the original eureka moment, he received a patent, but still, no one was looking to manufacture it. In 1987, at last, a venture capital firm said they were willing to work with him. Johnson quit his job to focus on the super soaker full-time. Then the firm clarified that they were totally willing to work with him, but he needed to pay $8,000 of his money for the privilege. That was $8,000 he didn't have. NASA was thrilled when he asked for his job back.
Four more years later, he was showing the gun off at yet another trade show, and this time it caught the eye of an executive from the Larami Corporation. Larami licensed the rights to the super soaker from him and went on to be acquired by Hasbro, who kept the partnership going. Over the next two decades, the super soaker took in $1 billion in sales. Johnson pumped his share of it into his own companies, which worked on non-toy inventions.
Just how big was Johnson's share, though? He finally did the math and found that Hasbro had been skimming, skimming a lot. They'd kept paying him royalties, sure, but his agreement with them also granted him 2 percent of the proceeds from toys based on the super soaker, even if they didn't use the exact same name.
So, the happy ending to this story isn't Johnson getting his toy made and gaining success. The happy ending came in November 2013, when, after he sued them and it went to arbitration, Hasbro had to fork over an additional $72.9 million to him in a lump sum.
For more screwed inventors:
Victor Gruen's Shopping Mall Became Everything He'd Ever Hated
The Woman Who Designed The Nike "Swoosh" Got Like $35
6 Inventors Who Changed the World and Got Screwed in Return
Top image: Supersoaker, Office of Naval Research