This year is the 70th anniversary of the invention of the world’s first float tank in 1954. What started as unusual experiments and personal exploration has now become a widely accepted wellness activity enjoyed worldwide.
Looking back at the past decades, we want to highlight the progress of floating as both an industry and a recognised tool for enhancing well-being and performance. While there’s a lot of history to explore (more than we can cover here), we’ll touch on the key periods and milestones over the 70 years of float tanks.
The Beginning – 1950s to 1960s
The origin of floating kicked off in 1954, thanks to American neuroscientist and medical doctor John C. Lilly. He crafted the first isolation tank at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). During this period, the mysteries of consciousness and perception intrigued the scientific community. Many theories were circulating about the potential outcomes of depriving the brain of external stimuli. Would it lead to sensory trauma, psychosis, or hallucinations?
Driven by curiosity and a desire to explore these theories, Lilly transformed an old water tank at NIMH for his initial experiments. He designed custom breathing masks to minimise skin pressure and maintained a neutral sound and temperature by immersing participants in skin-temperature water. Conventional wisdom suggested that these conditions would likely be distressing. However, Lilly’s firsthand experiences as the first subject in the tank quickly disproved those assumptions.
Instead of trauma, Lilly reported experiencing profound serenity and physical relaxation. The absence of distraction didn’t disturb his mind; rather, it opened doors to higher states of awareness previously unknown to him. His experiences with prolonged floats suggested that sensory isolation didn’t inherently deprive the brain. In fact, it hinted at the potential to enhance consciousness rather than diminish it.
Encouraged by these revelations, Lilly continued refining the tank design throughout the 1950s and 60s. He concentrated on improving comfort, safety, and the overall floating experience. At NIMH, Dr. Jay Shurley, Lilly’s colleague, also extensively studied himself and others in the tanks. Their work solidified floatation’s credibility within the scientific community. Despite this, outside of those directly involved in the research, few were familiar with these peculiar “sensory deprivation” devices.
However, the following years witnessed a significant shift as word spread about Dr. Lilly’s research and the remarkable states it could induce. In the late 60s, Lilly published “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer,” a cult-classic highlighting his early floatation experiments. He also began conducting workshops on floatation in California, setting the stage for a new era where tanks would enter the public domain.
Float Tanks Hit the Market – 1970s
As the 1970s rolled in, floating was far from being a mainstream activity, but it was gaining notice from specific circles and individuals. In 1972, John C. Lilly crossed paths with Glenn Perry, a skilled engineer, during one of his floating workshops. Together, they collaborated to tweak the basic design, creating an early version of the style still used today (where you lie on your back in a saturated Epsom salt solution instead of being fully submerged in a fresh water tank).
In 1973, along with Glenn’s wife Lee, they established the first commercial float tank manufacturing company, Samadhi Tank Co., which continues producing tanks even after 50 years. This marked the first time that regular people could easily buy and install these unique devices in their homes.
Then, in 1979, Samadhi Tank Co. opened the first commercial float centre in Beverly Hills, equipped with 5 float tanks available for customer bookings. The venture proved an immediate success. Between the flourishing float centre and Samadhi’s manufacturing arm, the float industry officially kicked off.
Boom in Popularity – 1980s
The 1980s witnessed a surge in the popularity of float tanks. In 1980, the movie “Altered States” hit the screens, becoming an underground classic that showcased actor William Hurt’s character experimenting with a float tank for psychedelic experiences. During the same year, the second float centre, named Altered States, opened its doors in Hollywood, further capturing public attention and curiosity.
Major publications like Rolling Stone delved into this peculiar new practice. Within a year, an additional 5 centres emerged, signalling just the start of a trend as more and more centres sprouted in cities across North America to meet the growing demand.
The field also attracted serious scientific attention. Researchers like Tom Fine and Dr. John Turner explored the effects of floating on diverse aspects, ranging from high blood pressure to athletic performance. Equipping their labs with dedicated float tanks for experiments, leading universities gathered robust evidence on the many benefits of floating for the first time.
Conferences hosted by organisations like the Float Tank Association (FTA) and the International REST Investigators Society (IRIS) served as hubs for sharing ideas and new research. The evidence spoke for itself. Floating had significant effects on both the mind and body.
By the mid-1980s, commercial float centres were emerging worldwide. What initially seemed like a fringe practice was evolving into a health and wellness industry with well-established benefits.
The Unexpected Decline of Floating – Late 80s and 90s
However, the flourishing era of floating took an unexpected nosedive with the onset of the AIDS epidemic. The rapid expansion of floating came to an abrupt halt as the emerging AIDS crisis sparked public fears regarding the use of communal water, despite the fact that floating itself posed low risks.
Misinformation and panic surrounding AIDS led to the collapse of the Western market for floating practically overnight. Within just a few years, most North American and European centres closed their doors. For a practice that had been gaining significant momentum, this was a devastating setback that would take two decades to fully recover from. Yet, even as the industry contracted in the West, devoted floaters in other parts of the world kept the practice alive.
In the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Nordic countries, strong floating communities endured through the decline. Centres in these regions kept their client bases and even experienced some measured growth despite the crisis. Meanwhile, research quietly persisted both in the United States and abroad, particularly in countries like Sweden. As Western funding dwindled throughout the 90s, these international labs laid the scientific groundwork for the eventual resurgence of floating in the future.
Endurance and Expansion – 2000s
As the new millennium unfolded, floating in the Western world remained a niche practice sustained by a small number of dedicated enthusiasts and the limited active commercial centres.
However, a turning point was on the horizon. Fresh research from abroad continued to emerge, and the influential and outspoken Joe Rogan started regularly endorsing float tanks. In the late 2000s, after a prolonged period, new commercial centres were emerging, and manufacturers were once again producing float tanks. This marked a notable shift in the landscape of floating as it regained momentum and popularity.
Revival – 2010s
In the 2010s, the number of float tank centres in the United States surged from a few dozen to hundreds. Concurrently, technological advancements elevated the experience with sophisticated filtration systems and more polished tank designs. As floating became more mainstream, many manufacturers entered the industry.
Float research, regained funding and attention. The Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) established some of the most advanced floatation therapy labs, such as the Float Lab. With unprecedented funding and participation, recent research in these years consistently highlighted the mental and physical benefits of floating.
Celebrity endorsements, particularly from professional athletes, became more prevalent. Floating gained significant exposure in popular shows like Stranger Things and The Big Bang Theory. By the mid-2010s, what originated decades ago as a peculiar science experiment had developed into a flourishing global wellness movement.
The Future of Floating
Reflecting on the remarkable journey from the early days at NIMH, it is awe-inspiring to see how far floating has progressed. Undoubtedly, the future holds limitless potential. With an increasing number of individuals experiencing floating firsthand, there are bound to be ongoing innovations, applications, and discoveries.
The promise of continued growth and evolution fills us with excitement for the journey ahead.