Wet Dreams: Who Invented the Water Bed?

Waterbed Sale When considering the advent of the waterbed, there are several pitfalls writers must avoid. Chief among them is conflating the nocturnal and aquatic in juvenile puns like “wetting the bed,” “wet dreams” and, of course, the mafia-inflected “sleeping with the fishes.” Or, with apologies to Bobby Darin, “Splish splash I was taking a nap…” The best route, I’ve realized, is to roll over into a personal query. “Was I, a child of the 70s – arguably the heyday of the “sea of sleep” – conceived on a water bed?”

I called my mom. A moment mercifully passed without any detectable awkwardness (this, of course, is the woman whom referred to my father as her “Larwentian lover,” after Women In Love author D.H. Lawrence, so I knew she was cool). Finally my mother answered: “No, I don’t think so,” though the timbre of her voice made her answer sound even less definite. Perhaps because the waterbed became popular during an era of unprecedented pre-AIDS licentiousness, a sexualized perception persists. The Urban Dictionary, an online repository of slang, lists the term “waterbed” as a verb with the suggestive example “Chris and Emily waterbed every single night.”

To wit, anyone born in the 70s, stand a fair chance of having been conceived in one. To whom do we owe our very lives? We can thank, or at least our parents can thank, designer Charles Hall, inventor of the modern waterbed.

Now based in Bainbridge Island, WA, the 68-year-old, designer was graduate student at San Francisco State University in the late 60s set on upgrading his self-described “useless” bachelor of degree in history to a master’s degree in design and industry. Hall’s initial projects were concerned with reversing the polarity of a pernicious trend that had seemed to have infected furniture design at the time, namely an emphasis on aesthetics first and comfort second. This is what lauded designer Gord Peteran might refer to as being “furnitural” an admixture of furniture and the sculptural arts, better suited to a gallery than a living room.

“What I was looking at was designer chairs that were more awesome sculptural exercises rather than function and comfort,” says Hall. “From my view I looked at it to analyze human comfort that answered those needs.”

As is often the case with visionaries, first attempts are blind-sided by reality. One of Hall’s first exercises to “eliminate pressure points,” one of the culprits that can cause discomfort in furniture, was a chair which was essentially a vinyl bag filled with 300 pounds of cornstarch.

“It was full of the kind of starch you would thicken a cherry pie. It was this shell frame and this big vinyl bag in it. You would sit in it and it would feel comfortable and it would just swallow you up,” laughed Hall. “You would have to breathe with a straw after about an hour of sitting.”

A second attempt with Jell-O, as can be expected, also failed. Hall meditated on the problem and realized that his pursuit of comfort should begin not with the chair, but with the piece furniture in which one spends the most time – optimally eight hours in a stretch – the bed.

How the bed evolved into the “Pleasure Pit” (a name Hall briefly used for the nascent product, which he was then peddling from the back of a van) are the stuff of waterbed lore. A version of the waterbed appeared in the 19th century as “Dr. Arnott’s Hydrostatic Bed,” was apparently devised to help patients avoid bedsores. No less a venerable author than Mark Twain cited a waterbed in the tenth paragraph of an 1871 New York Times article regarding a church and its planned infirmary in which “will be kept one or two water-beds (for invalids whose pains will not allow them to be on a less yielding substance) …” The first patent of a version of the waterbed was held by a certain Dr. William Hooper of Portsmouth, England, who filed his claim in 1883, but failed to make a splash in the market.

“Historically you can go as far back as Persians putting bags of goatskin filled with water on the ground and sleep on top of them,” reminds Hall, whose re-conception of the waterbed was aided by fellow SFSU alumnus Paul Heckel and Evan Fawkes.

Like the cornstarch and Jell-O chairs, the first iteration of the waterbed suffered from intrinsic impracticalities.

“After one night’s worth of sleeping you would have to deal with the temperature aspect of it. I lived I a kind of funky apartment in the Haight-Ashbury,” recalled Hall. “In the back room there, the heat was not particularly good, so the bed was cold after about four hours of sleeping.”

The solution was the advent of a heater to complement what was essentially a large, durable vinyl bag filled with water. Other technical tweaks followed and the first, practical, waterbed was created.

“My contribution was the modern day water bed that, at its peak, sold like $2 billion a year in water bed accessories, in that era, and was nearly 20 percent of the market,” said Hall. Not to mention helping to spawn Generation X. In this case, however, bringing children in the world was apparently easier than gaining a patent.

Due to references in sci-fi author Robert Heinlein’s oevre, most notably the 1961 fantasy Stranger in a Strange Land, the United States Patent Office refused to issue Hall a patent on the grounds that the authors descriptions of a “hydraulic bed” constituted “prior art,” meaning that even though it was never made, it was, for all intents and purposes, invented.

“This young man Smith was busy at that moment just staying alive. His body, unbearably compressed and weakened by the strange shape of space in this unbelievable place was at last somewhat relieved by the softness of the nest in which these others had placed him...” wrote Heinlen. “The patient floated in the flexible skin of the hydraulic bed. He appeared to be dead.”

Several years of legal wrangling ensued and Hall eventually received his reward. “Actually, by the time I finished, I had 25 patents on waterbeds, including variations and advents of soft sided beds, hybrid beds and waveless beds,” explains Hall. “Some people just imagined it. Doing it is a whole different set of problems and I eventually got it patented.”

There is, of course, no rest for the wicked. Hall continued to, as he says, “put water in bags,” which lead to the popular Sun Shower, a solar-heated outdoor bathing product. “

“We sold millions of those. It’s a mini-waterbed to some degree,” appraised the designer, who is now a partner at Advanced Elements, an inflatable kayak company that boasts accounts with REI and West Marine.

And though the waterbed’s popularity might have waned in recent years, its legacy endures in our contemporary mattresses.

“The interesting thing is that many years after the product was introduced, I was at a mattress show somewhere for one of the big three like Sealy or Certa. One of the presidents came to me and said ‘Waterbeds changed sleep in America,’” says Hall. “From the conventional side of bedding it was not ‘firmer is better’ but of comfort and having more compliant surfaces. All those new beds that have come out like Tempurpedic and ‘sleep number’ beds – if you read their ads they read like waterbed ads.”