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
We’re talking about the Charles Hall who invented the modern
waterbed—and helped make the decade of the 1970s just that much more
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
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 THE PATENTING
OF THE MODERN WATERBED?
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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Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
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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
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
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