Geek Trivia: Strange (water)bedfellows

What science-fiction icon's writings prevented the patenting of the modern waterbed?

Let's take a moment, boys and girls, to remark on the accomplishments of one Charles Hall, without whom recent American culture might have taken some very different turns. No, we're not talking about explorer Charles Francis Hall, who led some famous expeditions to the Arctic. We're also not referring to chemist Charles Martin Hall, who almost single-handedly revolutionized engineering when he came up with a cheap way to extract aluminum from ore.

We're talking about the Charles Hall who invented the modern waterbed—and helped make the decade of the 1970s just that much more interesting.

Be careful to note that we said modern waterbed, as in the vinyl jobbies that don't flood your house on a consistent basis. Somewhat less discriminating incarnations of the waterbed date back to at least the 1870s, when no less an authority than Mark Twain (who was a journalist well before he was an iconic novelist) documented a waterbed for invalids in operation at a New York church. Virtually all waterbed concepts originated due to medicinal purposes, particularly to prevent bedsores for immobile patients.

Alas, until the advent of vinyl—a cheap, durable, watertight fabric—waterbeds were in no measure commercially successful; the earlier versions were prone to constant leaks. That Hall finally cracked the nut in 1968 was perhaps more a measure of desperation than inspiration.

Hall originally set out to build a super-comfortable chair, and he began by filling a 300-pound vinyl bag with cornstarch. As you might imagine, it didn't work, and the follow-up attempt of a 300-pound bag of Jell-O didn't fare much better.

Hall finally gave up on his chair, focusing instead on building the ultimate bed, and he eventually stumbled onto a water-filled vinyl mattress. The only thing that stood between Hall and a surefire patent was that timeless intellectual property obstacle of prior art.

Yes, English physician William Hooper had obtained a British patent for his own cold, leaky waterbed in 1883, but that wasn't Hall's problem. Instead, the work of a revered science-fiction author stood between Hall and his waterbed patent.


What science-fiction icon's writings prevented inventor Charles Hall from patenting his designs for the modern waterbed?

Robert A. Heinlein, author of dozens of landmark science-fiction novels and stories—including Starship Troopers, The Puppet Masters, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Rocket Ship Galileo, and Stranger in a Strange Land. The last of these was one of the works cited by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as grounds to deny Charles Hall his waterbed patent in 1968.

Heinlein first described a waterbed-like invention in his 1942 novel Beyond This Horizon. He did so again in 1956 in Double Star and a third time in 1961 in the pages of Stranger. Why did one of science fiction's brightest minds seem so preoccupied with such a comparatively pedestrian invention as the waterbed?

In 1934, the U.S. Navy discharged Heinlein on medical grounds after he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. Bedridden and hospitalized for a long period, Heinlein's experience inspired his obsession with a more comfortable, water-filled hospital bed. Heinlein described his designs in Expanded Universe, a 1980 collection of his stories and essays:

"I designed the waterbed during years as a bed patient in the middle thirties; a pump to control water level, side supports to permit one to float rather than simply lying on a not very soft water filled mattress. Thermostatic control of temperature, safety interfaces to avoid all possibility of electric shock, waterproof box to make a leak no more important than a leaky hot water bottle rather than a domestic disaster, calculation of floor loads (important!), internal rubber mattress and lighting, reading, and eating arrangements—an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds."

Heinlein's descriptions were so numerous, precise, and prescient that Hall never managed to earn his waterbed patent. Don't feel too sorry for him, though, as he nonetheless helped launch the modern waterbed industry—and gave us some watertight Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

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This week's quibble comes from me, The Trivia Geek, in response to the discussion posts to the July 5 edition of Geek Trivia, "First to the Fourth." In that article, I made a self-effacing comment about the likely size of my international readership—"all five of my international readers"—mostly as a cut against the relative (un)popularity of this column.

Apparently, the joke didn't go over so well, as one-fourth of the 32 comments on the article expounded on my overseas readership. Message received—I can dog on myself, but don't ever speak ill of the subscribers.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.