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June 29, 2009

'Magic Fingers' Inventor John Houghtaling is dead at 92

Here's Margalit Fox's June 20, 2009 New York Times obituary.


John Houghtaling, an inventor whose best-known product shook postwar America, or at least those Americans who stayed overnight in midprice motels, died on Wednesday at his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. Mr. Houghtaling, the inventor of the Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed, was 92.

The cause was complications of a recent fall, his son Paul said.

Developed in 1958 in Mr. Houghtaling’s basement, Magic Fingers was a ubiquitous presence in the roadside America of the 1960s and ’70s. Installed on millions of beds in hotels and motels across the country, it featured a mechanical vibrator attached to the box spring, and a coin meter attached to the vibrator. Activated, “Magic Fingers quickly carries you into the land of tingling relaxation and ease,” as a label on the device proclaimed.

Operation was simple. The weary traveler dropped a quarter into the meter, and the mattress surged to life. Fifteen minutes later, when the shaking stopped, the user could either drop off to sleep or pay for another tremulous round.

“While the vibrators offer a pleasing sensation similar to weightlessness, no special medical or therapeutic value is claimed,” The New York Times reported in 1963. “It is said, though, that they are of aid in getting to sleep.”

Combining the thrill of a carnival ride with the pleasure of what could be accomplished, sleeping or waking, on a motel bed, Magic Fingers has insinuated itself into the consciousness of a great many Americans over 40. It has cropped up in a spate of movies, television shows and popular songs, including “This Hotel Room,” by Steve Goodman, in which Jimmy Buffett sang: “Put in a quarter / Turn out the light / Magic Fingers makes you feel all right.”

John Joseph Houghtaling was born on Nov. 14, 1916, in Kansas City, Mo. (The family name is pronounced HUFF-tay-ling.) After high school, he held a series of jobs, among them hotel bellman, cookware salesman and a salesman of a remote-control lawnmower.

The earliest vibrating beds predated the Industrial Revolution and were powered by household servants. Then came steam power, and after that, electricity. Mr. Houghtaling’s great innovation was to separate the motor from the bed.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Houghtaling was working as a salesman for a vibrating-bed company. Its product, which combined motor and mattress in one integrated unit, was expensive and unwieldy. What was more, as he said in interviews afterward, it broke down frequently.

Tinkering in the basement of his home in Glen Rock, N.J., Mr. Houghtaling tested 300 motors before hitting on one that was light, unobtrusive and made the bed tingle at just the right frequency. At the company’s height in the mid- to late 1970s, Paul Houghtaling said, more than a million Magic Fingers devices were in use in hotels, motels and private homes in the United States and Europe.

Mr. Houghtaling’s first marriage, to Ruth Donovan, ended in divorce; his second wife, Rita Breier, died before him. He is survived by four sons, John, Mark, Paul and Chris, and a daughter, Alison Lincoln, all from his first marriage; and four grandchildren. Most of Mr. Houghtaling’s children have Magic Fingers in their homes, Paul Houghtaling said in an interview on Friday.

By the early 1980s, Magic Fingers had begun to fall out of favor with hotel owners. By the standards of late-20th-century in-room entertainment, the device seemed quaint. There was also the matter of guests breaking into the coin meters and stealing the quarters, something they did often.

Mr. Houghtaling retired in the 1980s, after selling the rights to the Magic Fingers name. Today, the device is marketed by its current owners for home use.

The Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed can still be found in a handful of steadfast motels, mostly in the American West. There, the faithful check in and take to their beds, rolls of quarters in hand.

June 29, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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