Pummeling Mattresses for Science

Welcome to Cleveland, and the research-and-development labs of the Sealy mattress company, where I have joined Bruce Barman, Sealy's vice president for R&D, in the rollicking Product Abuse Room.

We are watching attentively as a massive mechanical piston relentlessly pounds a defenseless mattress, like a mob goon working over a snitch. On the business end of the piston is a big shiny fist of wood carved to resemble a life- size human keister.

"It simulates a person sitting on the bed," says Barman. "We'll do 70,000 or 80,000 repetitions, then we'll tear down the mattress and check it for wear and tear."

We cross the room to the opposite wall, where another mattress is being cartoonishly bullied by a unlikely contraption called the "Rollator." (Just imagine a giant rolling pin trying to flatten out your bed.)

"The roller weights 250 pounds," says Barman, as the mattress behind him heaves and shudders beneath the strain. "This test simulates 10 years of use by a fairly heavy person."

Mattress Abuse for Research

Mostly, Barman uses the machine to test new Sealy designs, but from time to time he flops a competitor's mattress into place, and lets it feel the Rollator's hefty wrath.

"We've had some mattresses that just can't take the punishment for very long," he says. "The springs become detached from each other, the mattress becomes unstable and deforms, and it ends up looking like a big beach ball."

In the world of quality bedding, beach balls are very, very bad. Conformance is good. Conformance is the Grail after which Barman and his fellow mattro-philes quest.

To the practitioners of mattress science, "conformance" refers to a mattress's ability to conform to the irregular contours of your body — your shoulders, hips, elbows, knees — while maintaining the proper alignment of your spine. That's essential to a good night's rest, because if your spine gets improperly twisted, the muscles of your back will toil all night in a vain attempt to pull it into line.

"That's the reason you wake with a backache in the morning," says Barman, "your muscles are fatigued from working all night."

Which means you need a firmer mattress, right? Not always. Barman says it's a mistake to think that firm mattresses are always more supportive than soft ones. A good mattress, he says, must balance soft comfort with the right amount of support.