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Bainbridge’s waterbed inventor making a comeback 50 years later

(Photo by Eric Norris, CC Images)
LISTEN: Fifty years after it's invention, Bainbridge Island's waterbed creator is revamping the 70's staple

It was 1968 in San Francisco. One year after the Grateful Dead joined Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jefferson Airplane at the Monterey Pop Festival. A year after 100,000 hippies descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood for The Summer of Love. Charlie Hall was a student at San Francisco State University. It was this time when Hall invented the waterbed.

“This was from, actually, my graduate school project in 1968 San Francisco,” Hall said. “My thesis was on human support and comfort and the waterbed evolved out of that.”

Hall now lives on Bainbridge Island. After graduating from college, he had a company manufacture the beds. He believed the beds were the most supportive and comfortable ever invented. And this being a groovy time in American history, they were first sold in pretty groovy places.

“People looked at it and they saw this thing wiggle and undulate and they thought it was a very sensuous kind of thing,” Hall said. “Waterbeds in San Francisco were originally sold in a lot of the head shops. You’d go buy a bong and a waterbed in the same place. I presented it as a serious product. Macy’s did a test market and some other bedding stores did [too.] It took almost five, eight years to have them received that way.”

Waterbed sensation

Eventually, Hall had 32 of his own retails stores in California, and the beds took off nationwide.

“I did, early on, make a bed that went to the Playboy Mansion. It was in green velvet and it’s in the center of a ‘Playboy’ magazine in 1970-something. It attracted some counterculture types at the time, entertainers. One of the Smothers Brothers bought one early on. A member of Jefferson Airplane. We hoisted it into their house on the Panhandle in San Francisco. Other interesting people bought them, including a nudist colony in Topanga Canyon. They just loved them! They ordered two.”

Before long there were copycats.

“I did get a patent on it,” he said. “It issued after two or three years of pending period. It took me ’til 1992 to collect royalties from some of the copiers. But it all turned out in the end, I did get royalties from quite a few people. One judgment was $6 million in infringement because they blatantly knew about the patent and they violated it.”

Eventually, waterbeds fell out of fashion. Hall says some of the knockoffs were poor quality, not comfortable and often leaked. They were too heavy and a pain to move; people often left them behind.

A new waterbed era

But this year, on the 50th anniversary of his invention, Hall is introducing a new and improved waterbed. One that doesn’t wiggle and wave. One that looks like a conventional mattress, where one person can toss and turn and their bedmate won’t feel a thing. I interviewed Hall at his home and asked permission to roll around on both of his new model waterbeds, and can attest that they are super comfortable.

“A friend of mine who has a big retail operation in Florida suggested that their time has come again and wanted me to update the idea and do any improvements I thought would make it better,” Hall said. “So I did. It’s more conforming, for starters, it’s very, very waveless. You don’t even perceive that there’s water in there from a visual point of view of it moving. It supports you even better.”

“Plus it doesn’t have the problems that some modern-day mattresses … like, memory foam is subject to a lot of body heat return where they feel hot at night,” he said. “Waterbeds allow you to really customize the temperature to your skin temperature, which is very important because your muscles expand and relax when you get into a warm bed and they’re contracting when you get into a cold bed. So, the temperature is a very important part that’s not dealt with any other beds right now.”

The new waterbeds will debut in Florida and eventually be available for order across the country.

Hall may be the waterbed king, but he’s invented many other successful products over the years, including camping equipment and mattresses.

“If you’ve ever had a sailboat or a boat, you’ve probably had a Sun Shower, which is a little solar heated shower for campers,” he said. “An immensely popular thing that still sells well today. Now I’m partial owner of a company that makes kayaks. So still kind of water-related stuff.”

Hall is a Cancer, a water sign, and his Bainbridge Island home is set right on the water, so he can look out to the Puget Sound while lying in his waterbed.

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