- Charlie Hall invented the waterbed in 1968, just after the “Summer of Love,” and started what became a $2 billion industry.
- The water-filled mattress earned a provocative reputation throughout its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s.
- But Hall intended for waterbeds to help people get better sleep, although research on the health benefits have been inconclusive.
- Hall’s new company, Hall Flotation, aims to bring them back, emphasizing the comfort of a “wave-suppression system.”
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Announcer: Wouldn’t you rather spend your evening in a waterbed? For a limited time, $189.99.
Girl: Daddy, can I have a waterbed? Please, Daddy, can I have a waterbed?
Narrator: Remember waterbeds? You might not, but they were all the rage in the ’70s and ’80s, and they kind of developed a reputation as a mattress that was good for, you know, stuff other than sleeping. But, believe it or not, waterbeds weren’t actually invented to make bedtime bouncier. They were intended to help people get better sleep.
Waterbeds, as we know them, were invented in 1968, just after the “Summer of Love.”
Charlie Hall: A very open, experimental time in San Francisco.
Narrator: That’s Charlie Hall, the man who invented the waterbed. The waterbed was part of Charlie’s thesis project at San Francisco State University. His idea was to create furniture that could form to the contours of a person’s body without creating pressure points.
Hall: Famous furniture designers like Eames and Mies van der Rohe and people like that had signature chairs, but I think they were more a sculptural effort, often, than something that really analyzed comfort.
Narrator: The key concept of the waterbed is displacement. So as you move, water fills the gaps, and every curve of your body gets equal support. But research is nonconclusive as to whether or not waterbeds help alleviate aches and pains. In the same way that some people like firm mattresses and others like it soft, it ultimately comes down to personal preference.
Now, before settling on water, Charlie tried to make a chair filled with Jell-O and another with liquid corn starch.
Hall: It was corn starch that was used to thicken cherry pies.
Narrator: Needless to say, neither one of those really worked out, but Charlie came up with another design that was a hit. It was a large mattress filled with water, and it could be used as either a bed or a kind of gathering space that you could have in your living room. He called it the “Pleasure Pit.” So, so much for avoiding those sexual implications. I mean, come on.
Next, the design was patented in 1971. It featured a coil for warming the bed so the water wouldn’t get cold, and it was lined to prevent leaks. It was also intended to go inside a hard-sided bed frame to keep the bed from expanding too much laterally.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, San Francisco was the heart of the counterculture movement. So a lot of people thought the undulating mattress was pretty groovy. Hugh Hefner had one, according to a 1971 article from Time magazine, king-size, covered with Tasmanian opossum. Charlie sold waterbeds to some other notable figures, like one of the Smothers Brothers and Jefferson Airplane. He even sold a few to a nudist colony.
By the late ’80s, the waterbed industry had reached around $2 billion and accounted for about 12% to 15% of the market in the US. But not everyone was on board. From a practical standpoint, people worried about leaks and weight. Waterbeds, once they’re filled with water, can weigh over 2,000 pounds, which makes them nearly impossible to move without draining them. There were also rumors of waterbeds falling straight through the floor because of how heavy they were, but Charlie says that concern was overblown.
Hall: Any normal construction can support a waterbed.
Narrator: Others didn’t like the waves generated by moving around in bed. Any time you roll over in a waterbed, it sends waves through the mattress to the other side, which could wake up your sleeping partner or you when the waves come back your way. And even though Charlie Hall had patented his design, this didn’t stop other producers from making knockoffs, which were often much less sophisticated.
Hall: $29 bags of vinyl were being sold out of pickup trucks on college campuses and called waterbeds. And you could lay on them, it was this giant blob, not particularly safe and not particularly comfortable. A lot of bad designs, I think, were kind of the demise of the big volume in waterbeds.
Narrator: In the 1990s, new mattress designs hit the market. Tempur-Pedic introduced memory foam mattresses to the US, and Sleep Number offered adjustable beds with inflatable air pockets. Waterbeds developed a stigma.
Today, waterbeds account for less than 5% of the mattress market. But 50 years after Hall’s invention, he’s back fighting the stigma. His company, Hall Flotation, makes luxury waterbeds called Afloat mattresses, and they’re all about helping you get a good night’s sleep.
Hall: Waterbeds were sloshy and gurgly and moved a lot. This one is very still.
Narrator: Afloat mattresses have a wave-suppression system so that when one person moves, it doesn’t have an effect on the other person. Charlie thinks it’s a good time to get back in the waterbed business. There’s more variety in the mattress market than there used to be, so customers might be willing to branch out. But only time will tell if these new waterbeds actually catch on. For now, I guess we’ll just have to sleep on it.
Hall: Waterbeds are experiential, you can’t look at one and tell what it’s about. You have to lay down on one.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2019.