A waterbed, water mattress, or flotation mattress is a bed or mattress filled with water. Waterbeds intended for medical therapies appear in various reports through the 19th century. The modern version, invented in San Francisco and patented in 1971, became a popular consumer item in the United States through the 1980s with up to 20% of the market in 1986[1] and 22% in 1987.[2] Currently they account for less than 5% of new bed sales.[3]


Softside waterbed 160 by 200 centimetres (63 by 79 in) with dual heating (top) and two water chambers and flexible chamber isolation inside (bottom).

Waterbeds primarily consist of two types, hard-sided beds and soft-sided beds.

A hard-sided waterbed consists of a water-containing mattress inside a rectangular frame of wood resting on a plywood deck that sits on a platform.

A soft-sided waterbed consists of a water-containing mattress inside of a rectangular frame of sturdy foam, zippered inside a fabric casing, which sits on a platform. It looks like a conventional bed and is designed to fit existing bedroom furniture. The platform usually looks like a conventional foundation or box spring, and sits atop a reinforced metal frame.

Early waterbed mattresses, and many inexpensive modern mattresses, have a single water chamber. When the water mass in these "free flow" mattresses is disturbed, significant wave action can be felt, and they need time to stabilize after a disturbance. Later types employed wave-reducing methods, including fiber batting and interconnected water chambers. More expensive "waveless" modern waterbeds have a mixture of air and water chambers, usually interconnected.

Water beds are normally heated. Temperature is controlled via a thermostat and set to personal preference, but is most commonly average skin temperature, 30 °C (86 °F). A typical heating pad consumes 150–400 watts of power. Depending on insulation, bedding, temperature, use, and other factors, electricity usage may vary significantly.

Waterbeds are usually constructed from soft polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or similar material. They can be repaired with practically any vinyl repair kit.

Types of waterbed mattresses


  • Free flow mattress: Also known as a full wave mattress, it contains only water but no baffles or inserts.
  • Semi-waveless mattress: Contains a few fiber inserts and/or baffles to control the water motion and increase support.
  • Waveless mattress: Contains many layers of fiber inserts and/or baffles to control the water motion and increase support. Frequently the better mattresses contain additional layers in the center third of the mattress called special lumbar support.

History in 1800s

A form of waterbed was invented in 1833 by the Scottish physician Neil Arnott. Dr. Arnott's Hydrostatic Bed was devised to prevent bedsores in invalids, and comprised a bath of water with a covering of rubber-impregnated canvas, on which lighter bedding was placed. Arnott didn't patent it, permitting anyone to construct a bed to this design.[5][6]

The use of a waterbed (for the ailing Mrs. Hale) is mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell's 1855 novel North and South.[7]

The protagonist Graham is placed on a waterbed in a glass case during his coma of 103 years in the 1898 H. G. Wells novel "The Sleeper Awakes".

In 1871, a waterbed was in use in Elmira, New York, for "invalids". It was briefly mentioned by Mark Twain in his article "A New Beecher Church", which was published in The New York Times on 23 July 1871. Twain wrote: "In the infirmary will be kept one or two water-beds (for invalids whose pains will not allow them to be on a less yielding substance) and half a dozen reclining invalid-chairs on wheels. The water-beds and invalid-chairs at present belonging to the church are always in demand, and never out of service".

On May 18, 1863 A proposal for waterbed supplies was posted to newspapers by the USA Medical and Hospital Department, Medical Purveyor's Office, Washington D.C. The proposal requested a supplier for "water-beds, India Rubber Rubber Cushions, for air or water".[8]

A newspaper classified want ad in 1877 requested "AN INDIA RUBBER Water-bed. 3 feet by 2 feet, new or second hand. Call immediately at 1,222 Broadway."[9]

Heinlein descriptions

Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein described therapeutic waterbeds in his novels Beyond This Horizon (1942), Double Star (1956), and Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). In 1980 Heinlein recalled in Expanded Universe:

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 made no attempt to build his invention.

The Hall waterbed

The modern waterbed was created by Charles Prior Hall in 1968, while he was a design student at San Francisco State University in California. Hall originally wanted to make an innovative chair. His first prototype was a vinyl bag with 300 pounds (136 kg) of cornstarch.[10] Ultimately, he abandoned working on a chair, and settled on perfecting a bed.[11]

Hall was granted a patent on his waterbed, (#3,585,356) which he originally called "liquid support for human bodies." The patent came to trial in 1991 in Intex v. Hall /wbx. The Patent was upheld in court and Hall received a $4.8 million judgment for infringement. In 1971, he founded Innerspace Environments, a manufacturing and sales company which became the leading retailer of waterbeds in the United States, with 30 owned-and-operated stores.[12] Hall /wbx Received additional royalties from licensing. Some later lawsuits were dismissed because of laches.

Sales peaked in 1987 at 22% of the domestic mattress industry.[13] Although the waterbed was initially advertised for offering "undisturbed sleep", Hall admitted that "[customers] bought it for the sensual or the sexual part of it" and the sexual association advertising was highly effective in the 1970s and early 1980s. Henry Petroski of Duke University said of the waterbed: "Not only was it the cool new gadget, but it emerged during a time when the culture embraced anything different, especially a product that embodied sexual liberation".[14]

Advantages and disadvantages

Regarding usage

The waterbed can be useful and comfortable for some and dangerous for others. The main feature of the waterbed found attractive is its form-fitting, pressure-minimizing nature. Not only is this a boon to those seeking mere comfort, but the removal of pressure from the spine can provide relief to those with back pain.[15] In addition, the distribution of weight can prevent bedsores among the paralytic and the comatose.[16][17] However, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development warns that the form-fitting nature of the water-bed poses a danger to infants, providing a possibility of asphyxiation.[18]

Another advantage of a waterbed is its easy cleaning. It is impossible for dirt and dead skin particles to penetrate the water mattress, which can then be wiped periodically with a cloth and vinyl cleaner. The cover over the mattress can be regularly washed—thus virtually eliminating house dust mites in the bed. Dust mites can trigger asthma, eczema, and allergies in people sensitive to them.

Other factors

First, since some hard-sided waterbeds are of different sizes than other mattresses, bed sheets are harder to find and come in fewer varieties. Second, moving a waterbed is a more difficult process than moving a normal bed; the water must be drained and the frame disassembled, then the frame must be reassembled, the mattress refilled with water, and the water heated for a potentially long period to get the new water to the correct temperature. And heating the bed can be costly: a waterbed consumes between 300 and 1,500 kW·h/year (36-180 USD at 12c/kW·h, the US national average for residential energy), depending on the climate, bed size, and other factors. The energy usage can be decreased by about 60% with the use of a soft-sided waterbed.[19] The ability to heat the bed is lost if there is a power outage. This can make the bed too cold to sleep on, particularly if the power outage occurs in midwinter, and the room cannot be heated. The water itself can pose challenges: occasionally, water mattresses may leak. Plastic liners will reduce damage, but emptying, patching, refilling, and reheating it (and sleeping elsewhere until all this is completed) is an inconvenience. Another factor is the weight of a waterbed. Waterbed mattresses, depending on the size, hold about 80 to 235 gallons of water, which could bring the weight of the entire bed to over 2,000lbs. This weight could pose a risk to the floor of the dwelling the bed is in. Some landlords or landladies may not allow a tenant to have a waterbed due to this, especially if it's on a higher floor.

See also


  1. Greenfield, Rebecca (13 August 2010). "The Rise and Fall of the (Sexy, Icky, Practical) Waterbed". The Atlantic.
  2. Williams, Lauren (September 5, 2015). "The Waterbed Doctor: Westminster Retailer Lays Claim to Retro Bed with Nearly 40 Years of Service, Sales". Orange County Register. Retrieved September 23, 2019.
  3. Fox, Joanne (31 March 2013). "Waterbeds no longer a mainstay purchase". Sioux City Journal. Retrieved 18 November 2015.
  4. "Waterbed FAQs at AwesomeWaterbeds | AwesomeWaterbeds.com". www.awesomewaterbeds.com. Retrieved 2017-08-12.
  5. An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy, Webster & Parkes, Harper & Brothers, NY, 1855 Google Books
  6. Dr. Arnott's Hydrostatic Bed, London Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume II, 1833 Google Books
  7. Elizabeth Gaskell. "North and South". Vintage Publishing. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  8. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86053570/1863-05-30/ed-1/seq-1/
  9. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030313/1877-09-14/ed-1/seq-18/
  10. "Modern Living: The Waves of Morpheus". Time. 7 September 1970. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  11. "Who Made That Water Bed?". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  12. "Charles Prior Hall and WBX Partners, Plaintiffs-appellants, v. Aqua Queen Manufacturing, Inc., and Water & Wood Corp., and Vinyl Products Manufacturing, Inc., and Atlanta Vinyl, Inc., and Classic Corporation, d/b/a/ Classic Flotation Sleeping Systems, Inc., and Land & Sky, Ltd., and United States Watermattress Corporation, and Easy Rest, Inc., d/b/a/ Strobel Manufacturing, Defendants-Appellees". Charles Prior Hall and WBX Partners, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Aqua Queen Manufacturing, Inc., and Water & Wood Corp., and Vinyl Products Manufacturing, Inc., and Atlanta Vinyl, Inc., and Classic Corporation, d/b/a/ Classic Flotation Sleeping Systems, Inc., and Land & Sky, Ltd., and United States Watermattress Corporation, and Easy Rest, Inc., D/b/a/ Strobel Manufacturing, Defendants-Appellees. United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. July 11, 1996. Archived from the original on 2012-06-09. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  13. Allen Salkin (14 August 2003). "For Water Bed Holdout, California Dreaming". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  14. Greenfield, Rebecca (13 August 2010). "The Rise and Fall of the (Sexy, Icky, Practical) Waterbed". The Atlantic.
  15. "Mattresses and chronic lower back pain - Undergraduate research project at the Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics". University of Southern Denmark, 2003
  16. Mayo Clinic Staff. "Bedsores (pressure sores)". Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Retrieved 3 June 2012.
  17. Perali (December 2005). "Prevention of bedsores: water or air?".
  18. http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/pubs_details.cfm?from=&pubs_id=5794
  19. Waterbed Heating: Uncovering Energy Savings in the Bedroom Home Energy Magazine Online September/October 1994. Retrieved December 3, 2007.
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