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History of Floating

1950’s – Questions

The history of floatation starts in the laboratory. During the early 50’s there was a big question in the world of neurophysiology as to the source of our brain’s consciousness. Is the brain simply an organ reacting to external stimuli, or is there some internal force that it responds to as well? There were many theories as to how the brain would react to a completely sensory free environment. Most scientists believed that our brains would shut down into dreamless coma-like state. Others thought they would continue to generate experiences for us to interpret, simply looking entirely internally for their motivation. One man named John C. Lilly decided to find out.

1954 – The 1st Tank

By 1954 Lilly had built the first ever floatation tank in the National Institute of Mental Health Lab in the Virgin Islands. Around this time people began to dabble with sensory deprivation, but mostly by having people lay in dark rooms with cardboard between their body parts to reduce sensations, resulting in many reports of discomfort from lying still in a bed for pro- longed periods of time. Lilly’s tank used water to allow people to float comfortably, and to effectively reduce all sensation of touch.

It was far from perfect. For one, you were completely submerged under water, requiring the use of a diver’s helmet with air tubes coming into it. The air bubbles released made a persistent noise, and the floaters were advised to take deep breaths and hold them as long as possible to facilitate better floatation.

Despite all of this, the results were incredible. People were not slipping into a comatose state. In fact, Lilly found more and more people coming out feeling amazing, reporting of personal discovery and self-actualization. This encouraged Lilly to continue his exploration of the float tank, building one or two more tanks in different laboratories in the United States.

1972-73 – New Tanks

For the next 20 years, floating remained exclusively in the laboratory setting, until 1972, when Lilly partnered up with Glenn and Lee Perry. He asked them to design a commercially available float tank that people could have in their homes, and he named this tank the ‘Samadhi.’

Glenn Perry and Lilly worked together to develop the tank (designing a light proof enclosure, adding table salt to increase buoyancy, replacing that table salt with Epsom Salt to reduce the sting) until 1973, when the first Samadhi tank was up and running, effectively starting floatation as an industry.

1979 – 1st Float Center

It wasn’t until 1979 that the first float center was opened, a 5 tank center in Beverly Hills run by Samadhi. This center was met with immediate success, and was emulated all across the US. Float centers started to pop up in every major city, new manufacturers started to enter the market, and the industry as a whole began to make a name for itself. The Samadhi’s went on to open a 20 tank center in San Francisco that doubled as a showroom for their tanks, and were completely booked out for weeks at a time.

Early ‘80s – The Boom

The 80’s truly became a decade of growth for floatation. It was during this time that a US Float Tank Association was formed, the first ever organization to represent the floatation industry. A wave of research began to pick up where John Lilly had left off, testing the float tank’s effect on anything from physical recovery to stress relief to smoking cessation to susceptibility to hypnosis. Researchers Peter Suedfield and Roderick Borrie coined the term REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) to replace the more ominous term of ‘sensory deprivation.’ Soon to follow was the formation of IRIS (the International REST Investigators Society), a group of researchers devoted to exploring and quantifying the float tanks possibilities.

The tanks were drawing the attention of media. Celebrities started to use and buy float tanks (Michael Crichton used one to over- come writer’s block, while George Carlin described it as his “one true relaxation”). Annual conferences were being held by the Float Tank Associate and IRIS to facilitate growth in the industry and to share new research that was being developed. The world of floating was on the rise.

Mid ‘80s – The Decline

This is an odd history to read in light of what we know today: an industry that’s still in its infancy, unknown to most the world. How did an industry that was seeing such success simply fall off the face of the earth? What’s most commonly attributed to this is the AIDS epidemic. In a time when it was controversial that Princess Diana was even shaking hands with AIDS victims, fear of communal water was rampant. The pool and spa industry were hit hard, and while pools and spas were wide- spread enough to bounce back, this was not true of the floatation industry.

1990’s – All Quiet

As the 90’s progressed centers began to downsize and close down, research began to peter, and the industry as a whole went into a state of dormancy. There are almost no centers known to have opened in the 90’s in America. Places to float were mostly limited to a handful of devotees who had a tank in their home, and opened this tank up to the general public, less to make money, and more to share the experience.

2000’s – Regrowth

It wasn’t until the later half of this last decade that floating began to make a resurgence. With the exception of one (Space Time Tanks in Chicago), every major US float center has opened their doors within the last 3 years.

2010’s – 2nd Boom

The United States float industry seems to be growing more rapidly than any other country

in the world right now. The numbers are hard to get a grasp on, but from our own estimates, the number of float centers in the US has increased by 20-25% in the last 3 years. The centers that are opening are larger and more publicized than in the past, and general awareness of floating has been dramatically on the rise. In a very quantifiable sense, every US manufacturer that we’ve spoken to has told us that they’re selling twice as many tanks this year as they were the year before, and the people they’re selling them to are in states they never thought floating would reach.

For the last three years there has been an annual Float Summit aimed at bring the international float community together. The first summit was in London in 2010, and was attended by about 25 people. The second summit was in San Francisco in 2011, and despite being entirely comprised of Americans, had an attendance of about 45 people. The recent Float Conference put on by Float On in Portland pulled in over 470 attendees, continuing the trend of expanding with every event. When looking at all these indications as a whole, it becomes very evident that the float industry has begun its second wave, and will continue to rise.

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