I belong to a networking group that requires me to make a short presentation every week on a topic that relates to my law practice. I usually like to present something about a celebrity inventor to give the members some idea as to what types of things that people invent and, in some cases, seek to patent.

Earlier this month I decided to do a commercial about author Robert Heinlein, who became a famous author in the 20th century. His genre was science fiction. He is sometimes referred to as the “Dean of Science Fiction” writers.

I found out that Mr. Heinlein was credited with inventing the modern waterbed when I was preparing my presentation. I use the term “modern” because water-filled beds are probably over 3,600 years old. Mr. Heinlein invented a “hydraulic bed” in his book “Stranger in a Strange Land” in 1961, which arose out of his extended hospital stay in the 1930s.  

The invention was never patented, but it was cited during the prosecution of a patent application that was filed by Charles Hall in the late 1960s. As a result, Mr. Hall was unable to obtain the broad patent protection that he was seeking.

This story demonstrates that a work of fiction can serve as a prior art reference if the description of the “invention” in the work is sufficiently detailed so that a person of ordinary skill in the art would be enabled to make and to use the invention.

For further reading on Robert Heinlein and his waterbed, please see:


For further reading on fictional technology and patents, please see:

  • Daniel H. Brean, “Keeping Time Machines and Teleporters in the Public Domain: Fiction as Prior Art for Patent Examination,” University of Pittsburgh School of Law Journal of Technology Law and Policy, Volume VII - Article 8, Spring 2007
  • Eric W. Guttag, “Applying the Printed Publication Bar in the Internet Age: Is It as Simple as Googling for Prior Art?,” Virginia Journal of Law & Technology, University of Virginia, Vol. 16, No. 01, Spring 2011