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The Wet and Wild History of the Super Soaker

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For generations, kids spent their summers chasing each other around the backyard with simple water pistols that barely shot more than a few feet. But squirt guns got a major upgrade in the 1990s when the Super Soaker was introduced by Larami Toys. For over 20 years, these high-powered water guns have dominated the world of water-based warfare, but success hasn't always come easy. Come along as we get drenched in the wet and wild story of the Super Soaker.

In 1982, NASA engineer and spare-time inventor Lonnie Johnson was working on his latest creation — a cooling pump that used water instead of Freon. He had a custom nozzle hooked up to his bathroom sink, and when he turned the water on, it fired a stream across the room. He immediately thought, “This would make a great water gun!”

So Johnson made a prototype gun out of Plexiglas with room for an air pressure chamber and water reservoir inside. To fire the gun, you pumped air into the pressure chamber with an external piston, then pushed a release valve, allowing some of the compressed air to escape, which expelled the water down the barrel. His six-year old daughter and her friends loved it, so Johnson started to look for a company to produce it.

Johnson first approached Daisy, famous for their BB guns, in 1985, and they were interested. However, the project never really got off the ground, so he decided to try his luck with LJN Toys, whose Entertech brand of battery-operated water guns were popular at the time. They, too, started to develop Johnson’s idea, but before the gun could be produced, the company, and the toy gun industry at large, ran into trouble.

At the time, toy guns looked almost exactly like their real-world counterparts, except they were made out of plastic. In 1988, there were a few high-profile cases of kids getting shot by police officers who mistook the kids’ toy guns for the real thing. Additionally, criminals were using toy guns in crimes because they were simple to get and could easily fool a terrified victim. This created a deluge of political debate that eventually led to regulations requiring all toy guns either have a bright orange barrel or feature an unrealistic color scheme.

With all the bad press, Entertech's sales took a nosedive and LJN was soon acquired by Acclaim Entertainment who phased out toy manufacturing to focus on video games. By 1989, Entertech was gone, leaving Johnson on his own once again.

The time spent with Entertech was not wasted, though. Johnson tweaked his gun's design by moving the water reservoir from inside to a separate container on top, using a 2-liter soda bottle on his rebuilt PVC pipe prototype. This small change increased the amount of “ammo” available with every refill, but it also made it much cheaper to build the gun, which he hoped would reduce roadblocks to production.

In 1989 Larami Toys, another water gun maker, became interested in Johnson's design when he wowed the company president by accurately shooting paper cups off a table from across the room. Johnson began working closely with Larami product developer Bruce D’Andrade to iron out wrinkles in the gun’s design, and, finally, in 1990, the “Power Drencher” water gun was released by Larami.

However, with very little advertising, the Power Drencher saw very few sales. So the following year, they retooled the marketing, including a name change to “Super Soaker,” and launched a television advertising campaign. Sales skyrocketed to 2 million guns in 1991 alone. Shortly after, the original Power Drencher became the “Super Soaker 50,” and was just one of many models available with different levels of water capacity and power.

Water Gun Control

By the spring of 1992, Super Soakers were everywhere. One even made an appearance on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson doused his sidekick, Ed McMahon. Unfortunately, just as summer was heating up, a few Soaker-related incidents threatened the water gun's future.

On May 29, 1992, 15-year old Boston native Christopher “Poochie” Miles was walking through his neighborhood when he came upon a Super Soaker water fight between two groups of kids. Then one of the participants started using a real gun instead. Miles was tragically caught in the very real crossfire and killed. Then, only a few days later, two young men were wounded in New York City after one of them accidentally shot a Super Soaker at a passerby who also retaliated with a real gun.

Around the same time, a Boston woman and her 4-year-old son received minor burns when someone in a passing car sprayed them using a Super Soaker filled with bleach. A similar drive-by bleach shooting occurred in Inglewood, California when a school bus driver was hit in the face while he was behind the wheel. Thankfully the bus was empty and he was able to pull over before anyone else was injured.

By the end of June, parents and politicians were calling for a ban on Super Soakers. Boston’s Mayor Raymond Flynn asked retailers to stop selling the guns and many stores complied. Naturally, thanks to the Mayor’s war on water guns, those stores that continued to sell Super Soakers couldn’t keep them in stock. The controversy made them the must-have toy in Beantown.

Throughout the summer, the controversy flared, but Larami spokespeople deflected the concerns by insisting the guns were safe when used as directed. They also fired back that maybe politicians concerned about water gun control should spend their time focusing on real gun control instead. Of course, by the following summer, the controversy had fizzled and Super Soakers were just as popular as ever.

Celebrity Soakers

It should come as no surprise that someone who called his home Neverland Ranch was a huge fan of Super Soakers. The clip below comes from the 2003 Fox TV special Michael Jackson's Private Home Movies, which shows Jackson celebrating a Super Soaker soaked Christmas with Elizabeth Taylor in 1993. There's also footage from 1990 of Michael, sister Janet, and Macaulay Culkin engaged in an epic Super Soaker fight across Jackson’s sprawling Neverland Ranch.

Recently, actress Rashida Jones, best known for Parks and Recreation — and for being the daughter of Michael Jackson's record producer, Quincy Jones — told Playboy about her memories of Jackson’s Super Soaker obsession:

"Once, my sister, Michael, Emmanuel Lewis and I got in a car with Super Soakers and went by a movie theater and supersoaked the hell out of people waiting in line. They had no idea they’d just been supersoaked by the King of Pop."

The King of Pop may have reigned over Super Soaker fandom in the 90s, but it appears the crown has since been passed to the Obama White House.

In June 2010, Ed Henry, then-CNN Chief White House Correspondent, tweeted pictures of then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and current Vice President Joe Biden having a water fight with Biden's family at a private party on the White House lawn.

The Most Powerful Water Gun Ever

In 1996, Larami introduced the Constant Pressure System (CPS) line of Super Soakers. This new line had a separate compression chamber that contained a thick-walled rubber balloon. Whenever a user pumped up the gun, water filled the balloon, which stayed under pressure until it was released on some poor, unsuspecting kid. The crowning achievement of the line was the CPS 2000 Mark 1 — perhaps the most powerful water gun ever made by a toy company.

The 2000’s compression chamber could hold approximately 1 liter of highly pressurized water. Once the trigger was pulled, this liter shot out of the gun in about one second, dousing the target before they could react. The stream was so powerful that the shooter could actually feel the gun recoil.

With that much water being shot out under pressure, there were some reports of injuries by those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of a CPS 2000 blast. Some complained of stinging skin, others got bruises, and there were reports of blurred vision and dizziness after getting shot in the head. There’s even an urban legend that someone’s eye popped out of the socket after they were hit in the face at close range.

While Larami never made a public statement about the safety of the CPS 2000 Mark 1, they unceremoniously replaced it with the Mark 2 design, which had a smaller compression chamber that couldn’t hold as much water. The new design was still pretty powerful, though, so even it was slowly phased out and replaced with weaker guns. Of course the legend of the CPS 2000 has made it one of the most sought-after models by Super Soaker enthusiasts, with vintage Mark 1 and Mark 2 guns regularly selling for $100 and up on eBay.

What Were They Thinking?

There have been a lot of popular Super Soakers over the years, but one model from 2006 was well known for all the wrong reasons. The alien creature-inspired gun The Oozinator was a Super Soaker designed to shoot water, as well as a white, slimy substance called “bio-ooze.” The television commercial for the Oozinator left many wondering if the product was real, or a parody made up by someone with a twisted sense of humor.

As you can imagine, the commercial became an instant YouTube sensation, the parody product reviews on Amazon.com oozed with hilarious innuendo, and it even made an appearance on The Daily Show. Hasbro stayed quiet about the whole thing, but it wasn’t long before the gun was discontinued.
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By Super Soaker’s 10th anniversary, more than 200 million guns had been sold, to the tune of $400 million in sales revenue. Toy maker Hasbro absorbed Larami in 2002, but they continue to crank out new Super Soakers every year under the Nerf product line. Since their introduction over 20 years ago, there have been approximately 175 Super Soaker models released, giving kids and adults alike a variety of ways to wage watery warfare.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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