Who Knew?

The story behind some surprising products born in the Golden State.

WD-40: THE TRUE KING OF CALIFORNIA’S OIL INDUSTRY
wd40
CHRIS HARDY

WD-40 is the handiest of lubricating goos. Since its formulation in 1953, the multipurpose oil has been used by customers around the globe to keep doggy doors swinging, break in new baseball mitts, shine stainless steel, and unstick gum. During the Vietnam War, soldiers applied it to their M-16s to prevent rust damage; on one occasion, according to company lore, police officers slathered the stuff inside an air-conditioning duct to extract a naked burglar. The original makers of WD-40 could hardly have foreseen such utility. The three employees of the San Diego–based Rocket Chemical Company were just trying to create a rust-prevention solvent for the aerospace industry. Forty attempts later, they got their “water displacement” formula just right (hence, WD-40). At one point, a can of WD-40 could be found in four out of five U.S. homes. Today, the company, now named after its signature product, manufactures millions of cans a year in its San Diego factory. A handwritten copy of the secret formula—nearly seven decades old—rests in a Bank of America vault not far from the company’s Scripps Ranch headquarters.

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SUPER SOAKER: THE WATER GUN THAT SATURATED THE TOY MARKET
nerf super soaker
CHRIS HARDY

California’s aerospace engineers have long helped Californians have fun, designing such devices as the modern surfboard, windsurfer, and boogie board. Add to that list another invention that keeps us cool in summertime: the Super Soaker. The idea came from Lonnie Johnson, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from Tuskegee University. In 1982, he was experimenting at home on a heat pump that used water instead of Freon. When he attached a nozzle to his bathroom sink and shot a high-pressure jet of water across the room, inspiration struck. After several more years of developing a prototype, he applied for a patent and licensed the design to Larami (later acquired by Hasbro) in 1989. The Super Soaker was soon the most popular toy in the United States. It has racked up more than $1 billion in sales, and its success allowed Johnson to invent full-time; he also holds a patent for the Nerf gun as well as less fun but more practical ideas like a wet-diaper detector.

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RAINBOW SANDALS: THE ORIGINAL SURF AND TURF
rainbow sandals
CHRIS HARDY

About 20 pairs of tattered sandals are encased in glass displays throughout the Rainbow Sandals factory and retail outlet in San Clemente. It may sound odd, but customers get it: wearing down Rainbows takes effort. Owners often mail in their retired flip-flops with letters about how they wore them across continents, on the sand, on dates, and even in winter rains. Jay “Sparky” Longley sparked Rainbow mania when he made the first pair in 1972 using scissors, a belt sander, and a sewing machine. Today, Sparky still visits his shop, where two million pairs of Rainbows are handcrafted each year with nubuck leather and closed-cell rubber midsoles that form to your feet—thanks to a technique that Sparky invented. Interested in a pair? Get them only if you’re ready for commitment.

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SRIRACHA: THE BELOVED SAUCE THAT BRINGS THE HEAT
sriracha
CHRIS HARDY

When David Tran first mixed up a potent brew of red jalapeño chile peppers, vinegar, garlic, salt, and sugar, he didn’t imagine that his concoction would become the United States’ most popular hot sauce and would hold pride of place on restaurant tables around the world. A Vietnamese immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1979, Tran wanted to create a perfect spicy addition to slurp with his pho. He started a company called Huy Fong Foods—after the freighter, the Huey Fong, that had carried him into a new life. Now his company produces 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce annually (look for the rooster label) in a massive factory just off the 10 freeway in the San Gabriel Valley city of Irwindale. A lawsuit initiated by the city over the spicy gases emitted by the factory almost caused a shutdown, but then-governor Jerry Brown’s office stepped in and brokered a deal that included modifications to rooftop vents to better absorb the chile and garlic smells. This year, the spring chile harvest was weak, and by summer, restaurants were scrambling to grab up the red stuff. So were we.

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