15th May 1788

Waterbed inventor is born in Arbroath

Neil Arnott was a surgeon who, after travelling to China, settled in London and co-founded the University of London. While living there, he was appointed physician to the Spanish and French embassies.

He did much to promote improvements in health within the home and, in the 1830s, invented an early waterbed – then called a hydrostatic bed – with the aim of alleviating bedsores in patients who were bedridden for lengthy periods.

Hydrostatic bed

The Londonderry Sentinel of 6 October 1832 carried a report about the hydrostatic bed on its front page describing its construction. It was, said the paper, “a trough, six feet long, two feet six (or nine) inches broad, and one foot deep, is filled to the depth of six or seven inches with water, and a sheet of waterproof India rubber cloth is placed upon it. It is fixed, and firmly cemented at the upper part of the trough, being of such a size as to hang down loosely in the inside, and floating upon the surface of the water, which admits therefore of the most perfect freedom of motion.”

A thin mattress was placed on top of the waterbed and “when the patient rests upon it he at once experiences the surpassing softness of the hydrostatic bed; he is placed nearly in the same condition as when floating in water, the fluid support being prevented from touching him, however, by the peculiar manner in which it is sealed hermetically, as it were, within the waterproof cloth, and by the intervening mattress.”

With waterbeds still popular today, it’s likely Arnott could have made a fortune with his invention, but he chose not to patent it, which meant any rival was welcome to copy or improve on it.

A bed for pain relief

The following year, on 9 February, the Preston Chronicle quoted from Arnott’s book, The Elements of Physics, in which he explained how the bed’s invention had come about as a means of alleviating the pain of one of his patients whose bed sores were so bad that even dressing them was enough to make her faint. At the end, he made clear that he “has given no exclusive right or privilege to any person to make this bed. He has hitherto employed a carpenter nearest to him, Mr Smith… at the back of Bedford-square, and the manufacturers of the water-proof cloth, Mackintosh and Co… but any carpenter or upholsterer may learn to supply them, and he gives free permission to all.”

Despite spending much of his life in London, Arnott neither forgot nor neglected his Scottish roots. He made generous bequests to each of Scotland’s universities and, upon his death in 1874, he was buried in Edinburgh’s Dean Cemetery



Other events that occured in May

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