Regular readers of this little blog know that we like to highlight the innovations and inventions that have improved the world and made America great. Take, for instance, the example of the late 20th Century waterbed which was introduced as a class project by design student Charles Prior Hall at San Francisco State University in March of 1968. At the height of its popularity 19 years later in 1987 nearly one quarter of all mattresses sold in the U.S. were waterbeds.
In the late spring of 1971, I took off on one of the great adventures of my young life—hitch hiking from Chicago to the Bay Area of California. From there, I was to work my way up the Pacific Coast hopping freight trains on an old fashion soap box speaking tour for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). I was lucky. I got most of the way to the coast in three long rides.
I picked up the last one as I was leaving Salt Lake from a young dude in a 1950’s sedan who had spent the winter in a high country cabin tending sheep all alone and dropping acid. He was more than slightly crazed, but he got me across the dreaded salt flats. Just as we crossed into Nevada he stopped to pick up two more long haired kids who were headed west looking for work in the fruit harvests. The car broke down outside of Elko, but I got a short lift to a junk yard and took a fan belt off a junker. By the time we got to his hometown just east of the Bay area, the driver was in full hallucination mode. The kids took him into his parents’ home and I continued on my way.
My next ride from a Middle age guy in a late model Oldsmobile turned out badly. The guy seemed friendly enough at first and told me that he had hitch hiked as a young man. Then he started questioning me about my trip. I told him about my plans for the speaking tour and explained the IWW. He asked me if I was a demonstrator and I told him that I had been in the streets during the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago. We were on an Interstate overpass in the late afternoon nearing Palo Alto where I was planning to crash with an old friend when the driver suddenly pulled over and told me to “get the fuck out of my car.” It was a very dangerous spot and told his I was afraid I would be hit by traffic and asked if he could at least take me to the next exit. He told me “That’s too damn bad.”
The Freeway was so busy, that I was surprised he hadn’t been hit letting me off. Standing in a strip less than two feet wide while cars zipped by at 70 mph, I stood there with my bedroll and the gasmask bag stuffed with a change of clothes and had to make a quick choice. I looked over the railing and saw that a busy surface street ran under the overpass. Some sort of vines covered a steep embankment to the road. I had to jump for it dropping maybe ten feet and hoping I didn’t break anything tumbling down the rest of the way. I tossed the bindle and the bag over and followed. I landed in one piece and slid to the sidewalk by the road—right in front of a local cop. Naturally, he was curious about why I had just leapt from the freeway. But despite my scruffy appearance in my beat up old Stetson and jean jacket with Wobbly colors sewed on back, he accepted my story. He patted me down and checked my bag and bedroll for drugs and weapons. I had neither except for an old Boy Scout pocketknife, but lots of people carried that kind of thing and it wasn’t considered a real weapon. He let me off with a warning to be more careful and even gave me vague directions to my friend’s place two or three miles away.
After my heart stopped pounding, I noticed what a pleasant, warm, and sunny afternoon it was. I was surprised that the air seemed perfumed. Bougainvillea and other flowers grew in perfusion in yards along fences. Evidently spring came earlier and more seriously to California than still frosty Chicago. I ambled my way through the streets getting lost once or twice. Finally, I found a pay phone and got directions. Soon I was at the small cottage my friend shared with a male roommate who was apparently off doing something else.
My friend was, in fact, an old girl friend from Shimer College and the great unrequited love of my life. I had wasted years mooning over her with suitable romantic angst and in the process missed most of the sexual revolution everyone else seemed to be enjoying. We will call her Sarah E. She was a pretty ash blonde, keenly intelligent, with her own streak of restless melancholy. We were still close, but I was definitely on the best friend desert island like the wisecracking third wheel of a romantic comedy.A few months after my Western trip at an IWW picnic in Chicago's Oz Park.
Sara greeted me warmly, poured a generous glass of wine and fed me a dinner with tofu and veggies, a sure sign I was on the left coast. After dinner we sat on her porch in the gloaming smoking excellent dope out of a carved stone pipe. We talked long into the seemingly tropical night recalling old times and catching up with each other’s lives. I harbored dim hopes that we would fall into each other’s arms and weep over time lost. We did not. Instead of leading me to her alluring bed with the Indian print spread, she took me to her roommate’s room. And that is where for the first time in my life, I beheld a waterbed—something I had only heard rumors about and read jokes about in Playboy.
I bet you never thought we would get back to the blog topic at hand, but here we are.
The bed was little more than a giant flat plastic bag lying on the floor, filled, naturally, with water. I don’t think it even had a frame. Several light blankets were thrown on it. I was advised to use most of them under me. The heater did not work very well if at all. The water in the bag was, at best, room temperature. When I lay down—alas, alone—I could feel the cool through the layers. The bed never warmed up like I was used to from the heat of my own body. I was surprised and a little alarmed by the rolling motion of the bed every time I moved. In point of fact, after the tofu, wine, and dope, it made me a little queasy. But I was exhausted and slept the sleep of the dead waking up refreshed.
Sarah made strong coffee in a French press and made paper thin crepes for breakfast. She had a day off and the use of her roommate’s VW Bus. She drove me around the Bay, up the East side giving me a short tour of Oakland and Berkley where I had stops in a couple of days, then over the wide bridge to San Francisco itself. We cruised the Haight and the Castro district and had dinner in Chinatown before she deposited me at the apartment of Phil Mellman, an 80-something Wobbly and former seaman who was my host for my Frisco appearance at Golden Gate Park the next day. There I was given a seaman’s bunk and it was up at six bells to swab the bare wooden floors as if they were the decks of a tramp steamer, where the Joe was boiled mud and breakfast a glop of oatmeal.
We will leave the story of the tour for another day and return now, at long last, to the saga of the waterbed.
What was notable is that in just three years the waterbed had gone from college project to a consumer product that could be found in some homes and that could be the butt of jokes in a men’s magazine. And bigger things yet were ahead.
Now for a quick look back to the origins of the idea.Noted Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott invented what is likely the first waterbed to prevent bed sores in invalids.
The use of some sort of water mattress for therapeutic purposes dates back to the 19th Century and perhaps even earlier. In 1832 noted Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott invented and put into use what he called the Hydrostatic Bed to prevent bedsores in invalids. It was also later used for burn victims and others for whom pressure from lying on relatively unyielding mattresses produced excruciating pain. The bed enclosed what he called a “bath of water” in a casing of rubberized canvas. Arnott declined to patent his invention hoping that other physicians would copy and use it. By the mid-century his bed or similar ones developed by others were in use in the most progressive clinics and hospitals on both sides of the Atlantic but were still generally considered novelties.
North and South, an important novel by English author and social reformer Elizabeth Gaskell in 1855 described a waterbed used by an invalid character. In America, Mark Twain described and praised their use at an infirmary for invalids in his hometown of Elmira, New York in an article for the New York Times in 1871.Science Fiction pioneer Robert A. Heinlein invented but did not build a surprisingly modern water bed in the 1930's when he was enduring a long bed rest convalescence.
While bedridden for an extended time with chronic tuberculosis which he contracted as a young Navy officer, pioneering science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein designed a waterbed to ease his discomfort from bed sores. While he never constructed it, similar water beds were described in his classics Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Years later in 1980 in his anthology of short stories and non-fiction Expanded Universe, Heinlein described in detail his never-built water bed.
I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements—an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.
In fact, it sounded a lot like the water beds found in stores across the county.
How much, if anything of all this that design student Charles Hall knew is open to conjecture. Like Dr. Arnott and Heinlein, Hall’s initial design was therapeutic. He wanted to build a chair for those in chronic pain. Working with the assistance of fellow students Paul Heckel and Evan Fawkes he first experimented with filling a vinyl bag filled with 300 pounds of cornstarch. He hoped that the fine powder would provide just enough “give” and softness. Unfortunately, it was uncomfortable. He next turned to gelatin, but it had a tendency to decompose even in the sealed bag.
He abandoned the idea of a chair, and turned to making a bed, which was structurally simpler. He soon turned to water to fill the bag. The resulting simple waterbed was much like Arnott’s more than a hundred years earlier. His main innovation was replacing the rubberized canvas with modern, flexible vinyl. He also discovered in addition to any health benefits and patient comfort, the motion of his beds enhanced sexual calisthenics.
Hall obtained a patent and founded Innerspace Environments which became a pioneering waterbed manufacturer, distributor, and retailer. He marketed his products as pleasure pits. Sales took off. But Hall, like many inventors, never really got rich from his innovation. His basic original idea—a single chamber bag with a rudimentary heating system was so simple that it was easy for competitors to make improvements and get their own patents. Hall spent so much money on fruitless patent infringement lawsuits that his business was barely profitable. And many of those innovations, especially multiple sections and baffling to reduce motion, as well as more sophisticated heaters and thermostats, made his simple original model rapidly obsolete.
If Hall did not become rich selling water beds, plenty of others did. Several regional and national retail chains made the waterbed store a ubiquitous urban feature. Until they became sold with elaborate frames and platforms and later models incorporated padding, water beds were significantly cheaper than brand name box spring and mattress sets. And they had the caché of hot sex. They were naturally popular among young people.
But they had their drawbacks—most notably the “domestic disasters” Heinlein tried to avoid. They could, and did, spring leaks. I had a friend whose cat tried sharpening her claws on a mattress and flooded her apartment and drenched the one below. There were many cases reported of the heavy beds crashing through floors that could not support them. The beds were also a hassle to drain and move. Heaters often failed and were expensive to continuously operate.
Like all fads interest eventually waned. Some blamed landlords who increasingly banned them, and insurance companies that either canceled policies of water bed owners or charged exorbitant premiums. Meanwhile there was a revolution in conventional mattresses including layers of padding, improvement in innerspring coil technology, and especially the introduction of memory foam.
Today waterbed stores have virtually disappeared. Only about 2% of American mattress sales are waterbeds and they are made, just as old Dr. Arnott had hoped, mostly for therapeutic purposes.
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