The name suggested mild titillation; the plate on the device promised “tingling relaxation and ease.” Twenty-five cents, and it would shake the mattress under you for 15 minutes, probably 14 minutes more than anybody could ever really want. The genius behind this 1958 invention was a former salesman named John Houghtaling.
Vibrating beds, first shaken by servants and then powered by steam and eventually electricity, had long been prescribed, at least occasionally, for a variety of medical complaints. In early 1958 Houghtaling was struggling to sell hotels and motels a mattress and box-spring combination with a pre-installed vibrator. The mattresses, made by a company called Englander, were so cumbersome and so expensive—$200 each—that nobody wanted them. Houghtaling realized that the problem was not the concept of a vibrating bed but the fact that motel and hotel owners would have to dispose of perfectly good mattresses in order to make room for one. He foresaw a significant market for units that could attach to existing beds.
Retreating to his basement workshop in Glen Rock, New Jersey, he went to work developing a simple massaging mechanism that could be easily installed on any mattress. “I can’t tell you how many motors I went through,” he says (he is now 82). “They were all too big. I finally got down to about a two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a horsepower.” The final version of the motor, about as big around as a onepound coffee can and half as high, was inserted upside down inside a box spring and clamped to the top wires of four adjacent coils with lug nuts. An off-center weight on the shaft of the motor induced the vibrations.
Houghtaling chose the name Magic Fingers and took about a year to test the machine. “We had experimental units, bedsprings with no padding on them, and we would run these things continuously for weeks at a time,” he says. When they were working right, “we’d put a piece of cardboard on top of the bedsprings. The cardboard would bounce gently up and down and spin around in a circle and also rotate around the whole box spring, but it would never fall off the bed.” Occasionally some of the bearings that held the rotating shaft would wear out, Houghtaling says, and those units simply ceased to vibrate. Contrary to popular belief, Magic Fingers never ran amok.
Like many motel televisions and radios of the time, Magic Fingers was coin operated. Houghtaling had earlier had run-ins with both the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association while promoting food supplements, so he made no claims about health benefits. Still, his basic sales pitch was hardly restrained: “We can convert the beds you have in ten minutes without wrinkling a sheet.”
He manufactured the first units in his basement, before setting up a factory, and he sold them for $25—generally to an expanding network of franchise dealers who would resell them to a motel owner for $45 each or, more often, install them free of charge, agreeing to maintain them and share the receipts: 20 percent for the motel operator and 80 percent for the dealer. In their heyday some quarter of a million Magic Fingers units were vibrating nationwide. The average coin box took in eight quarters a week, adding up to an estimated two million dollars a month in sales.
As had to happen, the novelty soon wore off. Moreover, units began to be vandalized, their coin boxes broken into, and motel owners gradually came to see them as a nuisance. In 1967 Best Western singled out Magic Fingers for special mention when it banned all coin-operated devices from its rooms, saying that they “tend to cheapen the accommodations.” Houghtaling attempted to develop a magneticstrip debit card system for the machines, but the business went bankrupt.
Lately, a mail-order company seeking to capitalize on baby-boomer nostalgia has acquired the rights to the Magic Fingers name and begun selling a re-engineered model for the home over the Internet ( www.magicfingers.com ). It costs $119.95 and includes a digital clock timer. Houghtaling still has one of the old units in his bed at home, and the Smithsonian is considering adding one to its permanent collection. It would be hard to argue with the new proprietors of the brand when they claim that it remains today “the most respected name in bed massage.”