Technology is amazing, and memory foam is one of its better products, that is, as far as we are concerned. In the last 50 years, we have seen so many more and greater inventions than in the hundreds of years before. Memory foam is such a common material to us today, and yet its origins seem like something from a Jules Verne novel.
We can thank the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for this wonderful invention. Memory foam was developed under a NASA contract with Stencel Aero Engineering Corporation in the 1960s. Technically, NASA itself didn’t invent memory foam, but they contracted for its development. NASA is an independent agency of the United States federal government executive branch. Being responsible for aeronautics research (as well as the civilian space program and aerospace research), it fell to them to come up with a solution to two particularly troublesome space travel problems.
But memory foam didn’t even really start there. The first research and development that went into the memory foam that we know today began in 1937. Otto Bayer and his coworkers were working on the polyurethane polymers that go into memory foam. In the 1950s, it was made by starting with a polyurethane mix into which water and halocarbons, or hydrocarbons, were added.
The first recorded use of this revolutionary foam outside of the laboratory was in a hospital in 1965. The nurses there used what was called inert polyurethane porous foam to pad the patients’ beds. Through this real life application, they discovered that the pads prevented bed-ridden patients from developing decubitus ulcers, or pressure ulcers, which are a common result of lying down for prolonged periods. Further studies also showed that the foam was hypoallergenic and resistant to bacteria.
The Space Age
At around the same time, NASA was also working on the development of materials that would improve cushioning on aircraft. Airplane seats were not very comfortable. There was also the big problem of improving crash protection. G-force was a huge problem for non-commercial pilots - think astronauts and fighter pilots. The extreme g-force, or gravitational force, created in situations of extreme acceleration puts quite a heavy strain on the body. Blasting off in a space shuttle can feel something akin to having hundreds of pounds lying on top of you. Moreover, astronauts spend a lot more time travelling than your average commuter. NASA needed cushioning that would keep them comfortable on their very long space journeys.
Charles Yost, an aeronautical engineer with the Systems Dynamics Group at North American Aviation, Inc., was contracted by NASA to help with the project. Yost created the open-cell, polymeric memory foam material that we know today. This memory foam had unusual viscoelastic properties - it was capable of absorbing a high amount of energy while still remaining soft. It was great padding for seats, and also served as a good buffer against pressure, increasing the likelihood of survival during a crash.
Memory foam was known back then as temper foam. This was before it was released for use in the many consumer goods we see today. In 1969, Yost formed the company Dynamic Systems, Inc., to sell temper foam technology. The company sold the rights in 1974, but later came back with derivatives of the original. These newer materials handled temperature better and were more environmentally friendly.
Modern Memory Foam
Dynamic Systems branched out into other applications, mostly for medical purposes, such as seating systems and orthopedic medical cushions and mattresses.
Being marketed for consumer applications beginning in 1991, the foam needed a catchier popular name. The goal of temper foam was to make seat cushioning more comfortable and to provide better crash protection for pilots and passengers. From there, this amazing material has come to be used for many other commercial and consumer applications, including the very popular memory foam mattress and pillows.
After undergoing several improvements and advancements, memory foam has become one of the best bed and pillow materials known to man. It is the only one that can completely conform and yet quickly regain its original shape, making it much more comfortable and longer lasting. NASA still uses memory foam in the space program today, for everything from seats to floors.