John Houghtaling, inventor of the Magic Fingers bed, dies at 92

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.
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