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LottaLiving.com • John Houghtaling, inventor of the Magic Fingers bed, dies at
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John Houghtaling, inventor of the Magic Fingers bed, dies at

Posted: Sun Jun 21, 2009 7:57 pm
by Steve Tepperman
John Houghtaling, inventor of the Magic Fingers bed, dies at 92
Bruce Watson
Jun 19th 2009 at 5:00PM

On Wednesday, John Joseph Houghtaling, the inventor of the Magic Fingers bed, died in Fort Pierce, Florida. He was 92.

In their time, Houghtaling's Magic Fingers beds were a goldmine. While the vibrating bed idea had been around for centuries, Houghtaling found a way to make them pay. His Magic Fingers system, the result of years of development, was easy to install and easy to use. Houghtaling sold the machines to representatives for $25 apiece; the reps, in turn, installed and serviced them for $45 or, more often, a share of the profits. At their peak, a quarter of a million machines were in service across the United States. With average weekly revenues of $2, they generated approximately $2 million a month.

Given their later reputation, it seems worthwhile to mention that there isn't really anything particularly sleazy about Magic Fingers beds. Basically designed to provide relaxation for weary travelers, the vibration system offered fifteen minutes of mild massage in return for a measly quarter. And the beds became a common reference point in American popular culture. As one obituary notes, the vibrating bed caused a beer bottle to explode in the movie "Trains, Planes and Automobiles" and made an appearance on the "X-Files."

However, like many fads, the boxes' dated design worked against them. By the seventies, the scarred, fake-wood and brass boxes would seem to be a foundational part of the iconic sleazy motel room, as much a requirement as shag carpeting, cheap paneled walls, and unwashed comforters. Once a mark of sixties' jet-set cool, Magic Fingers transformed into evidence that your hotel probably offered hourly rates.

On the other hand, the fact that Magic Fingers was an aging fad might not be the sole reason for its slightly sleazy associations. After all, there is something a little weird about attaching a coin slot to a bed: on a fundamental level, it seems an almost deliberate symbol for the combination of sex and commerce. Taken from this angle, the Magic Fingers machine takes on the dimensions of a punch-card time clock or a taxi meter. The fact that they sometimes made beds rock like the rear car on a roller-coaster added a certain panache to the proceedings.

Added to this, vandals would often break into the coin boxes or steal the machines. By 1967, Best Western specifically noted Magic Fingers when it banned coin-operated devices, stating that they "cheapen the accomodations."

Dark associations aside, however, Magic Fingers itself was an innocent, merciful invention, a legacy that lives on in the home brand. Retailing for $80, the new Magic Fingers is basically a 25-watt motor that straps on to one's bed and offers 59 minutes of shaking.

Houghtaling's legacy extended beyond his most famous invention. In 1976, long before the advent of ATMs, he patented a device that could read magnetic strips from cards. His intention, however, was to use the debit cards on his Magic Fingers beds, a tactical flaw that seems to have doomed what might have been a very lucrative invention.

Discounting the prime place that Magic Fingers occupies in the sleaze pantheon, it's clear that Houghtaling was, in some ways, part of a dying breed of American tinkerer. Having developed his most famous invention in a basement workshop, he continued to sell various coin-operated novelties, personally driving his wares up and down the Florida coast. In an age when commerce is often conducted long distance, through phone operators and e-mail, there's something comforting about the old fashioned model of personalized service. Here's hoping that, like so many of his shaking customers, Houghtaling will rest in peace.

Posted: Sun Jun 21, 2009 9:01 pm
by sky
Great post.

I'm embarrassed to say that it never occured to me that there was a sexual connotation to magic fingers. Of course, I was probably pre-teen when I was first in a motel that had one. I probably thought the motel had a lot of class for having such high-tech equipment.


Aside ... Steve, did you have any family in New Jersey?

Posted: Mon Jun 22, 2009 7:42 pm
by Steve Tepperman
I am currently living in NJ and do have a dad, bro and his family in the Garden State/ I left LA early 2008

Posted: Mon Jun 22, 2009 8:03 pm
by Perks

Posted: Tue Jun 23, 2009 4:52 am
by rockland
NYTimes
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/20/busin ... obituaries


:D

http://www.magicfingers.com/

Has a pre-set 59 minute massage cycle!
The programmable clock timer activates the massage unit!

(i've been searching for a new alarm clock...hmmm)

Posted: Tue Jun 23, 2009 6:37 am
by sky
Well, you know you can get the same effect on top of the washing machine in spin cycle. (Preferably loaded it up with large beach towels.)

Of course the newer h.e machines aren't as good for that ... their profile is too high, and the front loading vertical spinners don't provide the same action. Perhaps that will make a new market for vintage washing machines with like this 1947 Frigidaire Unimatic with pulsator.

http://automaticwasher.org/cgi-bin/00Sh ... S/GYRAFOAM

Not so good as an alarm clock, though.