The Mattress Revolution: How Memory Foam Changed the Way We Sleep

The Mattress Revolution: How Memory Foam Changed the Way We Sleep

Memory foam has become one of the most sought-after materials for mattresses today. Not only is it super comfortable to sleep on, but leading experts from around the world are praising memory foam for its ability to reduce pains and aches. Even the prestigious Journal of Orthopaedics and Traumatology notes that, in tests, ‘foam mattresses showed best results for low back pain’. 

It’s almost like magic. 

But where did this magic come from? How did memory foam enter the mattress market? And how has it changed the way we sleep? We answer all these questions – and more – below. So keep reading!

A brief history of memory foam

Have you ever heard the tale that memory foam was developed by NASA, and laughed it off? Well believe it or not, it’s true! That memory foam mattress that you’ve been thinking of buying most likely wouldn’t be here, if it weren’t for a contract that was won by the NASA team in the 1970s.

The memory foam story begins in 1966 when NASA research engineer Charles Yost was working on developing a shock absorber system for the Apollo command and service module. He’d been experimenting with high-density materials that absorb major impacts without altering their shape. 

A few years later, in the early 1970s, NASA won a contract from the Stencel Aero Engineering Corporation, who were interested in two things. Firstly, making aircraft seats more comfortable for pilots and passengers on long-haul flights; secondly, improving crash protection through better impact absorption. 

Yost brought his research into the project, developing an ‘open-cell, polymeric memory foam’ that exhibited both ‘high-energy absorption’ for impact protection and ‘soft characteristics’ for comfort. 

The Stencel Aero Engineering Corp sold the rights to memory foam in 1974. And the rest is history. 


Memory foam isn’t the only ‘unusual’ invention to come from NASA. Believe it or not, enriched baby formula, invisible braces, and cardiac pumps to keep patients alive during heart surgery have all been developed thanks to the work of NASA scientists & partners, as part of the NASA Spinoff programme. 

What exactly is memory foam?

Memory foam is a type of viscoelastic material. ‘Viscoelastic’ is made up of two words:

Viscous, meaning a thick, almost sticky consistency; something that’s between a solid and a liquid. For example, while water has very low viscosity, thick honey and treacle have very high viscosity. 

Elastic, meaning something that will stretch to be larger than its original size, and return to that size when the force is released. For example, a rubber band, a hair tie, a bungee cord, or an elastic waistband. 

Memory foam mattresses, of course, are made up of much more than memory foam alone. They contain multiple layers that all come together to create a comfortable sleeping surface. But the memory foam layers will all be made from this viscoelastic material, which is both viscous, meaning it’s somewhat ‘sticky’ and slow in its movement, and elastic, which means it moves with the body. 

What makes memory foam so special?

Memory foam and regular foam are very alike. So what makes memory foam so extraordinary?

Well, there are a few factors. One is that memory foam stretches differently to standard foam. 

The reason that memory foam was used for both aircraft impact absorption and comfort was that the foam reacted in different ways depending on the type of force that was applied. If force was applied very quickly – for example, in the event of a crash – the foam wouldn’t change shape much. It would remain quite stiff and solid, cushioning the blow. However, when a consistent force was applied over time, putting constant stress on the material, it would slowly and gradually change shape. In terms of mattresses, this means the foam moulds to the shape of the body overnight. 

Another reason is that memory foam returns to its original shape differently to standard foam. 

Memory foam is temperature sensitive, which means the longer you lay on it, the more the material will mould to your shape. But what’s even more impressive is that it can ‘remember’ this shape. They do call it ‘memory’ foam, after all! What this means is that, while a standard foam material may return to its original shape after just a few seconds, memory foam ‘remembers’ the shape of the body for longer, taking more time to return. So regardless of how much you may toss and turn during the night, you can still return to that natural, comfortable sleep position, and remain supported. 

What’s memory foam used for?

Since the technology was sold in the 1970s, memory foam has been used practically everywhere! It’s been added to the inside of motorbike helmets to protect riders against accidents. It’s been added to insoles to make feet more comfortable. It’s been used to pad wheelchair seats. It’s been used to make rafts. It plays a big role in prosthetic limb comfort. It’s even used in dressmaking, with designers using memory foam mannequins to understand how pieces will look on real, flexible bodies. And there have also been cases of memory foam going back to its roots, and being used for astronaut training. 

In the early 1990s, the world’s first memory foam mattress was launched, sparking the biggest-ever change in the way we sleep. Since then, manufacturers have expanded their ranges to include memory foam pillows, mattress toppers, and more, completely revolutionising the world of sleep. 

A better night’s rest

All the things that made memory foam so perfect for the airline industry are the exact same things that make it perfect for improving the quality and quantity of sleep. The firmness of the material – the viscosity – ensures excellent support for the body. The elasticity – the ability of the material to move with the body – promises unbeatable comfort. And at the end of the day, that’s what makes a great mattress: something that effortlessly combines support and comfort for a great night’s rest. 

Check out our range of memory foam mattresses, and see for yourself! 

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