The waterbed, flotation or water mattress is a bed that is filled with water instead of using springs as with traditional mattresses. The development of the waterbed began with use for therapies in the medical field starting back in the 19th century. However, the modern version of the waterbed was first patented in 1971 and became quite popular in the US over the next two decades.
Waterbeds are divided into two types, the hard sided and soft sided mattresses or beds. Hard sided waterbeds have a water-filled mattress inside a hard wooden frame and sits on a plywood deck. A soft sided waterbed has its mattress inside a foam structure and fabric casing.
The internal structure of waterbeds has changed over the years to deal with the waves generated when a person either lies down or gets up from the waterbed. The early mattresses which allowed this type of action were known as “free flow”. Today, water mattresses have various barriers and buffers to help prevent the wave action.
The History of Waterbeds
The first waterbed was created in the early 19th century by Neil Arnott, a Scottish physician who wanted to create a mattress that would alleviate bedsores for invalids. The design was a simple one consisting of rubber-impregnating canvas that was filled with bathwater. Neil Arnott did not patent his invention, so other quickly moved to create their versions and improve upon the design.
In 1871, a waterbed was manufactured in Elmira, New York also to help prevent bedsores for invalids. Even Mark Twain mentioned waterbeds in an article he wrote which was published in the New York Times also in 1871. It appears that waterbeds have proceeded that time in US history, but these are the first written accounts that we currently are aware.
By the 20th century, waterbeds were used primarily for invalids to prevent bedsores, but interest in the product grew over time as it was being included in popular science fiction work by Robert A. Heinlein who in a 1980 interview recalled actually designing his own version for hospital patients, although it was never constructed.
The First Modern Waterbed for Consumers
In 1968, Charles Prior Hall created the modern waterbed when he was a student at San Francisco State University. His fellow students Evan Fawkes and Paul Heckel contributed to the design which actually started out as a chair. However, it evolved into a waterbed that he dubbed, “the pleasure pit” and it was patented in 1971.
Hall then founded Innerspace Environments and began to manufacture and retail his design around the country. However, he was not able to defend his patents very well and other competitors created their own version of waterbeds which soon swept the country.
By 1987, sales of waterbeds had peaked at 22% of the entire mattress industry. However, waterbeds have been on the decline ever since with maintenance issues, the threat of leakage and the overall weight and maintenance of the mattress being problems as well. The further development of conventional mattresses also pushed into decline the popularity of the waterbed, although it can still be found in many mattress stores today.
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