What was the last name of that guy who invented those beds that fold into the wall?

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Published May 10, 2024

Duh! is a weekly column that gives circuitous answers to obvious questions. If you dig it, you can find 100 more of these essays in the Geeks Who Drink book, Duh!.


California hillbilly William L. Murphy met opera soprano Gladys Kaighin while her family was vacationing in the mountains around 1900. They fell in love instantly, and he followed her back to San Francisco … where he could only afford a studio apartment. Wanting to spare his high-class lady friend the shame of visiting him in his bedroom, he invented a way to make it not his bedroom, at least sometimes.

His Mentos-like adaptability paid off; he became rich as hell, and the pair married some time later.

Anyway, that’s the story you’ll read in a lot of places, and the part about the studio apartment is undoubtedly true: His particular apartment, on Bush Street, couldn’t fit much of anything besides a bed, if it was a regular bed. But it mustn’t have taken a vaguely-scandalous love story to figure out that if he had that problem, and if urbanization was going to keep proceeding apace, then there was probably a lucrative market in shit that folds into a wall.1

One way or another, Murphy patented his bed in 1911, and it surged in popularity–somehow helped and not hurt by that 1916 short “One A.M.,” in which Charlie Chaplin is repeatedly bullied by one.

You can still buy them today from the same company Murphy founded, and, if you need one, they’re still darn handy for something that only costs about twice as much as a regular bed frame.2

Other things that launched in 1911:

  • The Indianapolis 500. One of the first drivers to pay any attention to aerodynamics whatsoever – and to use a rear-view mirror instead of a human lookout in the passenger seat – Marmon Motors engineer Ray Harroun took the $25,000 grand prize (about $800,000 today) with a blazing time of 1:24 per mile. That’s right: A cheetah could have beaten him down the back stretch.3
  • Aerial bombardment. Yes, just under eight years after the Wright brothers’ first flight in Kitty Hawk, Italian biplane pilot Giulio Gavotti took off over Libya with a box of three-pound hand grenades. He chucked one over the side into an enemy camp, and just like that it became a whole lot easier to kill people you can’t see. Hooray!
  • Alzheimer’s disease. For sure, the degenerative brain disease existed before 1911; heck, Alois Alzheimer first lectured on it five years before that. But Merriam-Webster says the name was first printed in 1911, and that gives us a chance to point out that apparently Alzheimer’s is one of the things that’s affected by gut health. Ugh, just tell us what kind of yogurt to buy already.

As for good ol’ Murphy, all we know for sure is that he was married to someone named Ruth, not Gladys, when he died at age 80 in 1957, and that he’s folded up buried in Sonora, Calif.

  1. Indeed, Murphy himself apparently also invented a fold-up ironing board and a fold-up dinette set.
  2. And doesn’t use box springs. Does anyone like box springs?
  3. Okay, not really; a cheetah can only sprint one-quarter of a mile, and the straights at Indy are five-eighths each. We’d have loved to see them in a drag race though.



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