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  • Wouldn't you rather spend your evening in a waterbed?

  • For a limited time, $189.99.

  • Daddy, can I have a waterbed?

  • Please, Daddy, can I have a waterbed?

  • 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."

  • (It was) a very open, experimental time in San Francisco.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • It was corn starch that was used to thicken cherry pies.

  • 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.

  • Any normal construction can support a waterbed.

  • 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.

  • $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.

  • 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.

  • Our waterbeds are the best!

  • 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.

  • Waterbeds were sloshy and gurgly and moved a lot.

  • This one is very still.

  • 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.

  • Waterbeds are experiential, you can't look at one and tell what it's about.

  • You have to lay down on one.

Wouldn't you rather spend your evening in a waterbed?

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Waterbeds Used To Be A $2 Billion Industry. What Happened?

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    April Lu posted on 2019/03/07
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