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John Joseph Houghtaling 1916 – 2009

Posted by Whitmore, June 22, 2009 11:39am | Post a Comment
Put in a quarter
Turn out the light
Magic Fingers
Makes you feel alright.
- Steve Goodman from “This Hotel Room”

Maybe it wasn’t quite up there with jet packs and flying cars as what the future might hold but in the 1960’s the vibrating Magic Fingers bed was a sign that the future was here. And it felt kind of weirdly good.
 
John Houghtaling, inventor of the vibrating Magic Fingers bed, died this past week in Fort Pierce, Fla., of a brain hemorrhage after a fall. He was 92.
 
Probably the first significant hotel room amenity after the TV was the Magic Fingers bed, and in its time it was a veritable goldmine. The vibration system offered fifteen minutes of mild massage to the weary traveler for only a quarter. At the height of their popularity 250,000 machines were in service across the United States. With the average revenue of just $2 a week per machine, they generated approximately $2 million a month.
 
In 1958 Houghtaling had been hired to design a combination mattress and box spring with a pre-installed vibrating mechanism. Neither the beds, nor the concept, sold well. But later as he worked in his New Jersey basement he devised a small motor that attached directly to the existing box springs.Magic Fingers relaxation service! The brilliance of the idea was not in the motor itself, but the idea to install this simple mechanism in hotel beds across the country for a newly mobile culture.
 
Magic Fingers have become a popular reference point in American culture, frequently appearing in movies and television like National Lampoons Vacation, Planes, Trains and Automobiles -- which features a can of beer exploding on a vibrating bed, and an episode of The X-Files where Agent Dana Scully is seen dropping quarters into a Magic Fingers in her hotel.

Over time though, the coin boxes were targeted by thieves and vandals, motel owners gradually found the Magic Fingers as a more of a pain than a vibrating pleasure. Eventually Houghtaling sold the company in the 1980s and though the company has changed hands several times over the years, a home Magic Fingers version is still available.
 
Houghtaling once appeared as a mystery guest on the classic TV game show What's My Line? One panelist, after figuring out Houghtaling’s Magic Fingers connection, claimed that he was owed 25 cents due to a broken machine, Houghtaling tossed him a quarter as he walked off the stage.
 

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Steve Goodman (3), 1960's (84), Obits (63), American Culture (94), John Houghtaling (1), Magic Fingers (1)