Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The bed of the future

leave a comment »

Earlier this week, I noticed a post on the front page of Reddit with the headline: “After a 1946 plane crash, Howard Hughes decided he did not like the design of the hospital bed he was laying in [sic]. He called in his engineers and had them design a new bed that would allow someone with severe burns to move freely. It became the prototype for the modern hospital bed.” This wasn’t the first time that this particular fact, with a link to the Wikipedia article on Hughes, had been posted there—in fact, it was copied and pasted from an identical submission from last year, which in itself duplicated at least two earlier posts—but it happened to catch my eye for reasons that I’ll explain later. Surprisingly enough, there appears to be a germ of truth to it. After Hughes crashed his XF-11 test plane on July 7, 1946, he did indeed ask his staff to build an improved hospital bed. As far as I can tell, it was first reported the following month in an article by the Associated Press, “Hughes Designs Hospital Bed,” which read in its entirety as follows:

Plane-maker Howard Hughes, critically injured July 7 in an airplane crash, didn’t like his hospital bed so he called in plant engineers to design a “tailor-made,” equipped with hot and cold running water. The motorized bed, on which he now is resting at the home of a friend, is built in six sections and is operated by thirty electric motors. Push-button adjustments helped him ease his pain considerably during the thirty-seven days he spent in the hospital suffering from eleven broken ribs and severe burns. Hughes took the bed, tailored to the contours of his spine, with him when he left the hospital Saturday. “I think he left in an ambulance,” said a nurse, “but I’d believe it if someone told me he flew home in that bed.”

After that, the story reappears sporadically in treatments of Hughes’s life, with elaborations that reflect either additional sources, apocryphal expansion, or some combination of the two. In Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos, and Letters, for instance, we read:

Hughes had ordered his aviation engineers to devise a mattress that could be adjusted mechanically with his body’s movement as he continued the healing process. Working through the night, the factory created foam bedding that was divided into thirty-two sections, each controlled by a pneumatic piston and its own motor. When the mattress was rolled into Hughes’ room, he took one look at the complicated controls and sent it into storage, while leaking news of its invention and taking credit for its creation.

Note that the “six sections…operated by thirty electric motors” has somehow become “thirty-two sections.” But the detail that Hughes leaked the story to the press seems credible, while a footnote adds: “The mattress was discovered, unused, in a storage locker at Hughes Aircraft in 1976.” Other sources plausibly claim that it was Hughes’s associate Glenn Odekirk who oversaw the project. Over time, however, obvious exaggerations and distortions begin to creep in. One biography states: “[The bed] was quickly built and worked admirably, helping speed his recovery.” And then there’s this version:

Hughes’s bed was self-propelled, powered by thirty electric motors and controlled from an elaborate aircraft-style cockpit. From the comfort of this mobile sleeping machine, Hughes could tour the hospital wards, position his bed wherever he fancied, and summon up creature comforts such as music and hot and cold running water, all at the touch of a button.

What’s missing from all of these sources is the assertion that Hughes’s design was the basis of the modern hospital bed—and as a matter of fact, it wasn’t. In the November 12, 1945 issue of Life, which was published more than seven months before Hughes’s accident, an article titled “Push-Button Hospital Bed” presents a bed that includes all of the features mentioned above, using remarkably similar language. The wonderfully named Dr. Marvel Darlington Beem, it states, has built “a streamlined, electrically powered hospital bed which has a full-sized toilet built in,” and it goes on to describe it in detail:

Dr. Beem’s bed also includes other features which almost make it possible for patients to take care of themselves without any help at all. Piloting the bed like an airplane [italics mine] from a panel of switches…a patient may raise his head and feet, swing in front of a washbasin with hot and cold running water, open and shut windows, draw blinds, heat the bed, turn on lights anywhere in the room, or call a nurse. Also built into the bed are a collapsible table, an ultraviolet lamp, and an overhead trapeze bar for the patient to move himself around.

At the time of the XF-11 crash, Beem’s bed was still in the prototype stage, and it isn’t clear if anyone on the Hughes team ever saw it. (As the Life article notes, Beem practiced in Los Angeles, and Hughes was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital on Wilshire Boulevard, so it isn’t impossible that one was the inspiration for the other. Beem’s design was also written up in the August 1946 issue of Popular Mechanics, which would have been on newsstands when Hughes had his accident.) Judging from the few scraps of information that I’ve been able to find about Beem, he continued to show his bed at trade shows and to promote it in magazines well into the fifties, which indicates that it wasn’t in wide use for years. The modern hospital bed may well have developed along independent lines. But you can make a much better case for Beem than you can for Hughes.

Of course, this isn’t as good of a story, which may be why it emerged in the first place. Although Wikipedia includes the line “Hughes’s bed served as a prototype for the modern hospital bed,” the source to which it links, Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele’s Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness, makes no such claim. But it’s more fun to credit it to Hughes—even if he never did anything with it—than to the doctor who actually developed it and spent a decade shopping it around. (Amusingly, after the article about the bed appeared in Life, the magazine published a letter from the legendary science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback, founder of Amazing Stories, who noted that he had recently published a diagram of an “electronic bed,” pictured above, in his annual Christmas issue for subscribers. Life thanked him and informed its readers: “Years before they came true, [Gernsback] also predicted radio loudspeakers, television, radio-controlled vehicles and almost every other mechanical invention.” But that doesn’t mean he invented the modern hospital bed, either.) The Hughes factoid only caught my attention at all because it reminded me of the story that Robert A. Heinlein designed an early version of a water bed, as he recounts 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…[It was] an attempt to design the perfect hospital bed by one who had spent too damn much time in hospital beds.

You see this anecdote repeated a lot, and, with some caveats, it’s basically correct. But it’s also one of the least interesting things about Heinlein. Similarly, if you were to list all of the most fascinating facts about Howard Hughes, the notion that he designed the modern hospital bed, even if it were true, wouldn’t rank in the top ten. Yet it’s one of the only items about Hughes that makes it consistently onto Reddit, which implies that there’s something about it that appeals to us. It’s a cute story. But it’s time to put it to bed.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2017 at 9:06 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: