Over the last 50 years, memory foam has become a common material in most homes and vehicles around the world. Although most people never stop to consider where this memory foam came from. This post will explore the somewhat unexpected origins of this very common bedding and cushion material.
So, who invented memory foam mattresses and pillows? Memory foam was not invented to be used in the bedroom. It was invented in 1966 by Charles Yost. Working for the Ames Research Centre, under contract by NASA, in order to improve the comfort and safety of aircraft cushions. Originally named “slow spring back foam”, most people knew the material as “temper foam”.
So how did a material invented for NASA end up as a common household material helping people get a good night’s sleep? Read on to find out the details of this unlikely transition.
The Birth Of Memory Foam
As you now know, memory foam was invented by Charles Yost for the Ames Research Centre. NASA contracted the Ames Research Centre to create cushions that would improve the safety of their aircraft during take-off. So memory foam was tested in space before it was approved to be used on Earth and released to the general public.
The first use of memory foam outside of aircraft use was in the medical field. Memory foam was used in applications such as x-ray table padding. At this time, memory foam was also being used in the sporting world such as a liner in American football helmets.
It wasn’t long before memory foam was also used in the liners of high performance shoes.
In the early 1980’s, NASA released memory foam to the public domain. Despite it’s attractive and useful qualities, mainstream adoption of the material was slow. This was due to the manufacturing process being difficult and unreliable. For this reason, few companies were willing to produce the material for the mass market.
This was until Fagerdala World Foams agreed to produce the material. This proved to be a risk that came with a high reward, as this was the beginnings of what was to become Tempur World, the company that produces the world famous “Tempur-Pedic” mattresses that are still in production today.
In the meantime, memory foam continued to be used extensively in the medical field. It proved to be particularly effective in mitigating the negative effects of prolonged bed rest. Doctors and nurses found that the occurrence of bed sores was significantly reduced in patients that had to spend significant amounts of time in bed.
This led to wider adoption in the medical field, being used in wheelchair seat cushions, hospital pillows and padding for people experiencing long-term or chronic pain.
Some patients reported that the heat retaining properties of memory foam helped alleviate chronic pain as well.
A Slow Start
Memory foam was slow to gain popularity in the mass market. The initial problem was the difficulty and unreliability of the production process, which we have already covered above.
The next problem was that memory foam was very expensive in the early days. As the material became more widespread, and the production process became less difficult and more reliable, costs were reduced significantly.
Another hurdle in the early days came in the form of one of the positive aspects of the material. The heat retaining properties of the material was a positive element during cold nights, but for those living in warmer climates, this led to a hot and uncomfortable night’s sleep.
For these reasons, the memory foam as we know it went through a few significant changes in order to rectify these issues. Let’s take a look at the different iterations of memory foam over the years.
What is First Generation Memory Foam?
The first iteration of memory foam used a material known as polyurethane. Memory foam was created by feeding gas into a polymer matrix. This results in an open-cell, solid structure foam that will return to its original form after pressure has been applied.
As has already been discussed, this material had plenty of pros and cons. It is however, the original form of the now widely used and adopted memory foam.
Waht is Second Generation Memory Foam?
The second version of the material that had gained popularity in bedrooms across the world aimed to address one primary concern. Something that was a blessing and a curse for the material was its heat retention properties.
The second generation of memory foam aimed to address this problem by using a more open cell structure for the memory foam. This meant that the pockets of air within the memory foam had more freedom to move through the material which, in theory, results in a cooler night’s sleep.
What is Third Generation Memory Foam?
In 2006, 40 years after first generation memory foam was invented by Ames Research Centre for NASA, third generation memory foam was introduced to the market.
The reason for the invention of third generation memory foam was to further improve the one aspect of memory foam that some people viewed as a disadvantage; its heat retention properties.
Third generation memory foam began to include a gel within the structure of the foam. It was claimed that this gel behaved by removing body heat away from your body and dissipating it within the mattress or pillow. This results in a comfortable night’s sleep with no overheating problems.
This technology was originally invented and patented by Peterson Chemical Technology. Since this development, there have been many different versions of what are now known as gel mattresses.
Since the addition of gel to memory foam, many other materials have been added to memory foam with varying claims by the manufacturers. At the end of the day, most gel memory foam mattresses and pillows are similar in performance and confusing jargon by the manufacturers is used to describe the same thing.
Not So Humble Beginnings
It’s worth noting that a material that is ubiquitous with a good night’s sleep has its origins in the Cold War and the space race between the US and the USSR.
Charles Yost is credited with inventing a soft and durable material to lessen the impact that astronauts felt from the g-forces resulting from take-off. Originally known as temper foam, or T-Foam, over the years ‘memory foam’ has become the most well known term for the material.
When NASA tried to sell the formula to medical companies, they found that it was too brittle for long term use in the medical field. A significant change that led to the mass adoption of the material came when Tempur World bought the formula.
They were able to make some changes to the formula and production of the material that made it more durable while retaining most of the desirable qualities of the original product.
So, at the end of the day, Charles Yost is credited with inventing memory foam. He was working for the Ames Research Centre under contract from NASA.
It would be many years before the material was adopted for commercial purposes. This was mainly due to the difficult production process and the brittle nature of the final product.
For this reason, Tempur World can be credited with making the necessary changes to the material that took it from spaceships and hospital beds to most bedrooms throughout the world.