Encouraging Inspiration and Invention: The WHOOSH! Backstory
From Chris Barton's Author's Note for Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions
A Super Soaker uses a pump to compress the air found in its water reservoir, which puts pressure on the water. When the trigger is pulled, the pressurized water can escape and . . . WHOOSH! If you search the internet for "how Super Soakers work," you'll find a lot more about what goes on inside Lonnie Johnson's most famous invention.* But if you want to better understand how Lonnie Johnson himself works, then you'll put this book down, step away from the computer screen, and get permission to take something apart so you can see those kinds of goings-on for yourself. You might even start with a Super Soaker.
This book began with a lunchtime conversation I had with a couple of librarians in Texas. They had recently gone to a seminar where attendees were asked to draw a picture of a scientist. The most common image was of a guy who resembled Albert Einstein—lab coat, wild hair, white skin. The point of the exercise was to draw attention to the fact that scientists are more diverse than that. The lesson those librarians learned rubbed off on me, and by dinnertime I had found the story of the African American rocket scientist who invented the Super Soaker.
What was most appealing to me about Lonnie Johnson's story was the fact that it was still unfolding. He didn't just take his Super Soaker money and retire young. Instead, he directed it toward hands-on efforts to solve one of the most important engineering puzzles of our day. His mission? To efficiently harness heat energy—from the sun and other sources—in order to generate the electricity we need without polluting the planet.
I loved talking with Lonnie Johnson for this book. I have never laughed as hard during an interview as I did when we discussed his work on Linex and how his family "put up with" his efforts—or rather, how they encouraged him. It's no surprise that today, even as he continues his own work, Lonnie Johnson makes time to encourage the efforts of tomorrow's scientists and engineers.
I hope that this book will encourage them, too.
*Throughout his life Lonnie Johnson has sometimes worked alone and at other times as part of a team. The water gun that began in his bathroom got some help along the way from a builder of prototypes named Bruce D'Andrade. The names of both men appear on the original patent for what became known as the Super Soaker. However, Bruce's widow, Mary Ann. told me that her husband considered Lonnie to be the inventor.
Chris Barton is the author of Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions, illustrated by Don Tate, and Sibert Honor book The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer's Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors, illustrated by Tony Persiani.
- Colette Parry