Crowd: Hell, no! We won’t go! Hell, no! We won’t go! Hell, no! We won’t go!
Walter Isaacson: It’s the summer of 1968 in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Home of the Grateful Dead, protests against the war in Vietnam, and a counterculture revolution. Even though design student Charlie Hall also lives in this neighborhood, he’s been far too busy to take part in any of this action. You see, Charlie has been spending most of this time up in his apartment readying for his final project for his graduate degree. It’s too large to move to the school, so he set it up in his living room. His advisors and fellow students will be here soon. The design department at San Francisco State University is not immune to what’s happening on the streets, and the school’s free-flowing vibe has made it an incubator for alternative thought. And though Charlie’s invention is certainly alternative, it’s also a serious design product. One he hopes will improve the way people spend a third of their lives. Yet, what he couldn’t imagine were the ripples that it would eventually send through an entire industry. That is, until his classmates arrive later that afternoon and stayed long into the night, over the moon with what Charlie had come up with. Charlie had just invented the waterbed. I’m Walter Isaacson, and you’re listening to Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies.
Speaker 3: Can’t sleep. Can’t sleep.
Speaker 4: Science must have some answer to a problem as important as this.
Speaker 3: If you don’t get enough sleep you won’t have the pep to do other things.
Speaker 5: Well, I’d buy me a mattress long enough for all of me to stay in bed.
Speaker 4: To make you more comfortable and relaxed so it will be easier to sleep.
Speaker 6: Pleasant dreams, Jim.
Walter Isaacson: Charlie Hall wasn’t the first to conceptualize this invention, but as we’ll hear it was his approach to its design at a particular time in history that made it both commercially viable and hip. That’s not a word you’d typically associate with products as mundane as beds or mattresses. Not before his design and not again for decades. It would be nearly 50 years before another group called Casper would similarly rouse the sleeping $15 billion mattress industry, and like Charlie Hall and his waterbed, they would do it by embracing the culture of the time in a whole new way. We’ll get to those stories in a moment, but first, a verse by 17th Century poet Isaac de Benserade.
Sarah Holder: In bed, we laugh, in bed, we cry, and born in bed, in bed, we die. The near approach a bed may show of human bliss to human woe.
Walter Isaacson: That’s Sarah Holder, a staff writer at CityLab who covers labor and technology.
Sarah Holder: This poem really demonstrates how important sleep and the places that we sleep and how we sleep and where we sleep has been important throughout history.
Walter Isaacson: She details that history in an article called Now Entering Sleepopolis.
Walter Isaacson: The earliest beds can be traced some 77,000 years ago to the people of Sibudu in South Africa who slept on layers of reeds and rushes covered with insect-repelling leaves. These mattresses were a foot high and large enough to sleep a whole family. Raised sleeping structures made of leaves of straw became more common around 5000 BC, where elevation took priority over comfort. As long as we were off the ground and away from dirt, vermin, and the underworld, we didn’t mind sleeping on pillows made of logs, but that changed in the 15th Century, especially in Europe.
Sarah Holder: In the Renaissance period, you could order up a bed that was stuffed with pea shucks or feathers inside velvet or brocade if you were very high class wealthy. Other people during the Renaissance period without as much means would sleep on structures stuffed with wool, but no matter your social class from the lower-middle class up to this aristocracy the bed was usually the most expensive article of furniture that you would have.
Walter Isaacson: In the 19th Century, mattresses became more affordable as production increased during the Industrial Revolution. The innerspring, the steel coil spring, and the box spring were invented. Companies like Simmons and Sealy took root.
Sarah Holder: Mattresses became these sort of standardized mass-produced commodities. They were no longer luxurious objects. There were tons of them rolling down the production line and they were sort of more of a staple of middle-class homes in America.
Walter Isaacson: In the 1940s, a cotton surplus coincided with the second World War. While many factory-made mattresses were being shipped off to the troops rural and low-income Americans were urged to make their own. The US Department of Agriculture held demonstrations and distributed pamphlets persuading people to “turn surplus cotton into better living”.
Sarah Holder: They published these instructional booklets on mattress production, which are really pretty amazing. They cite a few easy steps to making your own mattress. You just have to put some cotton, of which you have a lot at this time, in layers. You wrap it in fabric, the fabric of your choice, and then you pound it all to whip it into shape and they suggest you use stout sticks to do that.
Walter Isaacson: When the war ended the troops returned home to their GI Bill-funded single-family houses and soon filled them with children and beds. The mattress industry grew accordingly. Brands like Serta, Sealy, and Spring Air became household names and offered an array of features. All of these brands boasted of their top-notch comfort, which brings us back to Charlie Hall, a design student in 1960s San Francisco.
Charlie Hall: What I decided to do was try to develop the most comfortable piece of furniture I could think of. I developed the modern day waterbed in 1968.
Walter Isaacson: Charlie consulted with doctors and physiotherapists, even psychiatrists to learn as much as he could about comfort and landed on a few key ideas. Eliminate pressure points, make it like a soothing Whirlpool bath, and when possible, float.
Charlie Hall: I tried to emulate that first in a chair.
Walter Isaacson: Which he filled with a Jello-like substance.
Charlie Hall: You’d sink down in it. It felt really good and then gradually as you sat there it kind of swallowed you up as you sat and sank a little deeper. Plus I found too that the temperature, at least in San Francisco in my apartment, was pretty cool, so it can be kind of cold and clammy after a while.
Walter Isaacson: It was also heavy.
Charlie Hall: You needed a forklift in your living room to move it around.
Walter Isaacson: He added a temperature control system and tried water instead. Recent innovations in vinyl made it possible to ultrasonically weld a bladder that wouldn’t leak. Hall actually wasn’t the first to invent a waterbed. There are accounts of Persians sleeping on goatskins filled with water in 3600 BC. In the 19th Century, two doctors made early versions to help treat bedsores, and in the early 1900s, writer Robert Heinlein envisioned modern waterbeds in his science fiction, but it was Charlie’s waterbed that capitalized on new technology and the spirit of the times. He remembers well that day in 1968 when his classmates arrived at his apartment to see his invention for the first time.
Charlie Hall: People walked in the room and they saw this thing sloshing around. That’s where the class stopped and the rest of the day was spent there. Someone went down and got a bottle of wine at a deli. It got crazier and crazier.
Walter Isaacson: He figured he must be on to something. A few months later he displayed the pleasure pit in a San Francisco art gallery.
Charlie Hall: Designed to be the only piece of furniture you would need in a studio apartment. You could lounge on it. You could sleep on it. You could even eat on it. It was a wild success. The press picked it up in August on a slow news day and it ran all over the country and waterbeds were off and running.
Walter Isaacson: Well, sort of. While they caught on with the counterculture, they weren’t yet an easy sell to conventional furniture retailers. After he graduated, Hall manufactured the beds and started up a business with a friend.
Charlie Hall: I helped deliver waterbeds to a nudist colony in Topanga Canyon. We delivered beds to one of the Smothers Brothers. Made one specially for Hugh Hefner that was a green velvet upholstered thing. It appeared in an issue on beds in Playboy. We delivered the first 30 or so on the top of a Rambler station wagon to very eccentric, colorful people.
Walter Isaacson: Including the band Jefferson Airplane, who had theirs hoisted up to the second level of their black-painted Victorian on the panhandle.
Charlie Hall: That was interesting.
Walter Isaacson: Waterbeds were also sold in Bay Area head shops.
Charlie Hall: You could go in and buy you water pipe and a waterbed all in the same place. You have to have lots of tie-dye in the background. A lot of ferns hanging. The frames were these ornate wooden things that were burned or somehow sculpted. Mirrors on the ceiling.
Walter Isaacson: What did he make of these early adopters?
Charlie Hall: I embraced it to some degree, but I really didn’t feel totally comfortable with it. It wasn’t really me and my background, but as a serious design student, I said, “Well, this is interesting. This product is being embraced and it will be known for lots of things, including better sleep, at some point too.” But the party aspect? Fine. Bring it on.
Walter Isaacson: And on it came. Retailers soon jumped onboard. Waterbed specialty stores bloomed around the country. Marketers reveled in the product’s sex appeal and created ads like, “Two things are better on a waterbed. One of them is sleep.” The New York Times wrote, “Filled with up to 250 gallons of water and who knows how many tons of sexual promise, the organic free-floating form seemed to capture the spirit of the age.
Walter Isaacson: In the early 1970s, the waterbed department at Bloomingdale’s became a pickup hub for New York singles, and then came the ’80s. As the mood in America became more conservative waterbeds shed their counterculture cache and were more likely to be found in suburban master bedrooms than San Francisco head shops. Sales skyrocketed to over $2 billion in the mid to late-’80s, capturing 20% of the mattress market, but it didn’t last.
Walter Isaacson: While Hall blames poorly made waterbeds as a reason for the sharp decline in sales, others point out that they were cumbersome to move and required maintenance. As well, people worried about leaks, but that wasn’t the only reason for the waterbed’s decline. There was also a new product looming on the horizon. One that, according to Hall, offered many of the same benefits.
Charlie Hall: If you read a memory foam ad it reads like an old waterbed ad. They’re trying to do what waterbeds do better actually.
Walter Isaacson: In the early 1990s, Tempur-Pedic mattresses made from a foam that responds to pressure and heat promised to “change the way the world sleeps”, but the revolutionary material wasn’t invented to promote better sleep. It was invented at NASA to save lives.
Charles K.: My name is Charles Kubokawa and I am the co-inventor of the aircraft seating, the temper foam, which is the things that dampens any kind of g-forces applied to it.
Walter Isaacson: In the 1960s, NASA test engineers Chuck Kubokawa and Charles Yost to develop an airplane seat that would help protect pilots and passengers in a crash. As Chuck notes, absorbing gravitational force was the key.
Charles K.: We had to look for every small detail how to suppress the g-forces from going into the human body. We hit upon the idea of getting real good cushions to absorb the Gs.
Walter Isaacson: They researched different kinds of foam for the cushions, but what was out there didn’t meet their requirements and it often burst into flames, so they decided to create their own. Yost would adapt the chemical formulation as Chuck consulted on everything from even weight distribution to deterioration to non-flammability to posture, the list went on.
Charles K.: Anything that we thought of we accounted for in the temper foam. I couldn’t think anymore outside the box.
Walter Isaacson: They came up with a material that contours to the curves of the human body and eliminates pressure points. If there’s an impact the force is evenly absorbed without shock or balance and returns to its original state when the pressure is removed. They called it temper foam and built it into their seat design. They crash tested their development and were happy with the results.
Charles K.: The seat that we designed we found out was good for 36 Gs. When your airplane flying if it goes over 14 Gs I found out the wings would fall off, so essentially if the plane falls apart you’d be flying the seat into the ground yourself.
Walter Isaacson: Chuck recalls applying for patents on the seat’s design. 27 in total, including one for temper foam.
Charles K.: When I handed in the patent design the patent attorney from NASA AIM said, “Hey, Chuck, I’m sorry to tell you, but you missed the patent deadline date by one day.”
Walter Isaacson: With a missed patent deadline …
Charles K.: Anybody could you know use our designs.
Walter Isaacson: Charles Yost went on to form a company to commercially market temper foam and used it in wheelchairs and other products. In the ’80s, NASA released the formulation to the public domain, but the material was difficult to manufacture and most companies gave up. One Swedish company, however, did not. Fagerdala World Foams spent years refining it for consumer use. In 1991, they introduced the Tempur-Pedic mattress in Sweden. A year later it came to America. Chuck remembers it well.
Charles K.: Every time I saw these ads that came out with a mattress where people were dropping the bowling ball on the foam I said, “Oh, my god. They’re using the temper foam,” and I was right. Every time I see those ad it just kind of gets my temperature up a little bit.
Walter Isaacson: But that didn’t stop him from one day sleeping on one himself. He had kept in contact with his former collaborator and weeks later mentioned to Charles Yost that he wanted a Tempur-Pedic mattress of his own. Weeks later Yost sent him one in a box.
Charles K.: I don’t know what he sent me, so I opened up the box in my garage and the foam and everything just expanded out there. I had a hard time getting that foam into our bedroom because it expanded up to a big size. That’s how resilient it was. I was quite amazed.
Walter Isaacson: So what was it like to sleep on the foam he co-invented to save lives in an airplane crash?
Charles K.: To tell you the truth, to me it was wonderful because soon as you lay down on the mattress it took shape to your body all the way down to the heels of your feet and the back of my head. Every time I move the foam adjusted and it was extremely comfortable.
Walter Isaacson: Comfortable enough to be sleeping on it to this day?
Charles K.: After five years my wife says, “Hey, this temper foam is good, but I think there is a little depression coming in on the mattress, so let’s just get off the foam.”
Walter Isaacson: A few years before Tempur-Pedic tried to change the way the world sleeps three enterprising salesmen changed the way mattresses were sold. In the mid-’80s Steve Fendrich and his partners opened a mattress store in a Houston mall, which was unusual because at that time, mattress stores were typically on the outskirts of town. They laid carpeting to make the place more inviting and in another break with tradition, they took the plastic off the showroom models so people could actually lie down on them. The company they started was Mattress Firm, which would grow to become an industry giant with thousands of location across America, but it didn’t last.
Walter Isaacson: In October 2018, Mattress Firm filed for bankruptcy, a move financial experts say was prompted in large part by over-expansion. But it had been dealing with a steady increase in competition from the industry’s latest disruptors, online direct to consumer mattress brands that are projected to take 20% of the market share this year. Leading the pack is Casper.
Philip Krim: My name is Philip Krim. I’m one of the co-founders and CEO of Casper.
Walter Isaacson: A few years ago Philip and four of his friends set out to shake up the mattress business.
Philip Krim: We knew that buying a mattress was one of the worst consumer experiences in existence. No one liked going into a sales environment where you’re greeted by a commissioned salesperson who has you laying under bright fluorescent lights and is trying to get you to spend as much money as possible.
Walter Isaacson: They also felt there were too many models to choose from and too many confusing features. They wanted to change the whole bed buying experience. They believed if they could simplify it they could appeal to a new generation and they could do it online. They decided to design just one type of mattress, a mattress that could be folded into a box the size of a dorm fridge and delivered to your front door with the click of a mouse, but when they approached potential investors they weren’t exactly met with enthusiasm.
Philip Krim: We would have people stop us mid-sentence saying. “You can’t build a cool mattress company. No one cares about it. How can you build a company where you’re not getting recurring revenue? How are you going to ever sell a product that you can’t lay on. No one shops for this online.” There were just a million objections to the idea that we had and we would hear a lot of them every single day, and so it some days felt you know particularly dejecting and we just had to power through.
Walter Isaacson: Then along came investor Ben Lehrer, the founder of the popular website Thrillist.
Philip Krim: I think the way we pitched Ben was that buying a mattress is the absolute worst. There’s no brand out there that resonates with Millennials. We were a bunch of Millennials that thought we could build a brand that was cool, do it direct, do it digitally, and create an awesome product that people love to sleep on.
Walter Isaacson: He bought it and bought in. Soon the Casper founders had the seed money they needed to finish developing their mattress and the novel approach to selling it, which including a huge investment in cheeky marketing and a heavy emphasis on the customer experience. They offered free delivery and “painless” returns, as well as a 100-day trial period so people could sleep on the mattress before committing.
Philip Krim: April 22, 2014, was the day that we flipped the switch on the website. It was a day that we spent almost a year, really since the summer of 2013, working towards. We were certainly all very nervous. We had some friends, some investors, some family members all around us. And we flipped the switch at 7:00 AM that morning and much to our surprise shortly thereafter, within the first couple hours we started seeing one order, two orders.
Walter Isaacson: They sold 40 mattresses that day, their inventory for six weeks, and after only 28 days in business, they hit $1 million in sales, their target for the entire year. Casper was not the first company to sell mattresses direct to the consumer. In 2007, Bill Bradley, a Tennessee inventor who developed the machinery to fold a mattress in a box, started a company called BedInABox.com, but Casper is considered the disrupter.
Philip Krim: We were the first, as far as I know, to put our brand around it to give you tools to help unbox the product and to really just put ourselves in the customer standpoint and work backwards and make it as easy and seamless as possible.
Walter Isaacson: In the early days, the founders live-chatted, emailed, and spoke directly with customers. They packed leather-bound vintage books into the box as a thank you note. Baby gifts were sent to customers who had mentioned they were pregnant, but beyond this over-the-top customer service Casper also created a voice for their brand through irreverent advertising and social media mastery. Soon racking up thousands of loyal online followers and fans. In 2016, Wired Magazine wrote that Casper customers talked to the brand as if it were a person.
Philip Krim: Casper did not invent the bed in the box idea, but what Casper did was really think about the customer experience with that as a key part of it and then really think about, how do we invent the ideal experience around that? We branded the unboxing experience.
Walter Isaacson: That experience of getting and unpacking a mattress from Casper became a phenomenon people began to film and share online.
Philip Krim: We had, much to our surprise, dozens of people, in the early days, and eventually, thousands and hundreds of thousands of people post their unboxing videos to the internet, share it with their friends and family, and really help create Casper to be what it is today.
Walter Isaacson: Casper’s early online footprint also included a media platform called Van Winkle’s that was staffed by journalists writing stories about sleep. It was replaced last year by an online and print quarterly called Wooly, which claims to cover comfort, wellness, and modern life. Philip Krim.
Philip Krim: We saw content as a great way to both further the brand, further the conversation around sleep, help people continue to think about sleep in different ways, but do it in a way that allowed us to create and maintain a one-to-one relationship with our customers on a much more frequent basis for a much longer point in time.
Walter Isaacson: Casper’s approach to the business of sleep has since attracted investors like Leonardo DiCaprio and the rapper Nas, raising over $240 million. Big mattress companies that once ignored the bed in a box phenomenon have taken notice and started lines of their own, but for all their success, including sales topping $300 million last year, Casper’s share was less than 1% of the market.
Philip Krim: We know it takes times to really change an industry and to capture the share that will come with that change, so as quickly as we’ve grown we know we have a long way to go and it’s going to be a journey that we’re excited to continue to go down the path of.
Walter Isaacson: Wherever Casper’s journey may lead, there’s no doubt that the company has shaken a sleepy industry, but perhaps this time it’s woken up.
Walter Isaacson: I’m Walter Isaacson and this is Trailblazers, an original podcast from Dell Technologies. On the next episode, we’ll look at the surprisingly fascinating world of computer printers. From the early days of digital printing to the 3D printers of today, capable of printing almost anything. And as always, if you want to find out more about any of the guests on today’s show you can visit our website at delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. That’s delltechnologies.com/trailblazers. Thanks for listening.