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"[Science fiction] is the only kind of writing that allows you to look at the world we live in and change one piece at a time."
- Frederik Pohl

Waterbed (Hydraulic Bed)  
  A bed that uses water instead of springs and stuffing.  

Yes, many science fiction fans believe that Robert Heinlein thought up the waterbed. However, see the comments below before making up your mind.

This young man Smith was busy at that moment just staying alive. His body, unbearably compressed and weakened by the strange shape of space in this unbelievable place was at last somewhat relieved by the softness of the nest in which these others had placed him...

The patient floated in the flexible skin of the hydraulic bed. He appeared to be dead.

From Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein.
Published by Putnam in 1961
Additional resources -

The water level (and possibly pressure) of the bed also seemed to be adjustable. A bit later in the chapter, we read "Here, help me lift him into the bed. No- fill it first. Frame did so, cutting off the flow when the cover skin floated six inches from the top.

The word "hydraulic" literally means water + pipe (or flute); hydraulics refers to the movement of water in a confined space like a pipe. You could think of the bed as a wide "pipe" that confines it; the water pressure attained keeps the bed surface firm.

In Expanded Universe, Heinlein writes:

"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."

Checking with other sources, however, we find that the first water-filled beds were probably goatskins filled with water, used in Persia more then 3,600 years ago.

In 1873, St Bartholomew's Hospital used a waterbed to treat and prevent bed sores. (Waterbeds allowed mattress pressure to be evenly distributed over the body.) Waterbeds probably did not enter into more popular usage until better materials were available.

The first commercially successful waterbed was created by Charles Hall in 1968.

The idea also appears in Heinlein's earlier novels Beyond This Horizon (1942) and Double Star (1956 - see the entry for the space-going cider press).

The basic idea of using water to cushion an individual in a spacecraft was probably first used by E.E. "Doc" Smith in his 1934 novel Triplanetary (see the entry for acceleration tank).

However, if you really want to look at water as a means of cushioning acceleration during space flight, you would have to go all the way back to Jules Verne. In his 1867 novel From the Earth to the Moon, he equips the projectile (that is, the space "capsule") with water-springs.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Stranger in a Strange Land
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Heinlein
  Tech news articles related to Stranger in a Strange Land
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Heinlein

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