Throughout history, waterbeds have always been associated with medicinal comfort and luxury. They’ve appeared in stories by Mark Twain and Robert Heinlein, and served as set pieces in innumerable films and television series. Depending on the century, waterbeds have been associated with aging invalids, esteemed royalty, and cutting-edge cultural superstars. Although waterbeds rose to widespread prominence in the late 1960’s, the earliest known form of a waterbed dates back over 3,000 years ago to Persia. Goatskins were filled with water and placed in the sun to absorb heat. While it’s unclear exactly who slept on these beds, historians have speculated that the warmed goatskins were occupied either by the sick or by royalty. Until the 19th century, the “waterbed” would remain a curious historical footnote.
In 1832, Scottish physician Dr. Neil Arnott invented the Arnott hydrostatic waterbed as a way to help reduce bedsores in patients. The “bed” consisted of light bedding placed on top of a rubberized canvas, which correspondingly rested on a bath of water. Arnott did not patent his invention, leaving it to several other physicians, including Sir James Paget and Dr. William Hooper, to refine and rework his basic design. Paget, impressed by the waterbed’s ability to evenly distribute pressure across the body, revived Arnott’s design as a method to treat ulcers in 1873. Hooper, meanwhile, promoted the waterbed as a cure for rheumatism and arthritis. In 1883, Hooper had the foresight to patent his version of the waterbed, but was unable to figure out a way to regulate the temperature of the water. Because of this flaw, his waterbed subsequently did not perform well commercially.
However, this did not prevent Harrods’s of London from attempting to sell waterbeds as a luxury mail order in 1895. Unfortunately, the material from which the mail order beds was manufactured resembled that used in large hot water bottles. This flaw once again thwarted the waterbed’s commercial potential.
The invention of vinyl in the 1960’s radically transformed waterbeds from a curious luxury item into a viable commercial product. In 1968, pioneering San Francisco State University student Charles Prior Hall accidentally invented the waterbed, or as he called it, “The Pleasure Pit,” while attempting to find malleable stuffing for an experimental chair. Hall transformed the waterbed into a thriving commercial entity by also inventing a heater, liner, and patch kit. The seeming novelty of the bed made it an enormous success with the popular culture of the time, and it quickly gained commercial prominence. By 1987, waterbed sales accounted for 22% of the mattress market. Ironically, Hall was unable to sufficiently defend his patents from other manufacturers, and never reaped the full benefit of his invention.
Luckily, the 21st century waterbed combines the medicinal benefits of pressure reduction and comfort with the highest standards of luxury. Most waterbeds are now sold on a regular frame and resemble ordinary spring and coil mattresses in their exterior appearance and size. However, unlike their historical predecessors, modern waterbeds offer sleepers the ability to control the temperature of the water without having to first leave them in the sun.