'Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed' inventor dies at 92

ByUSA Today
June 19, 2009, 5:36 PM

MIAMI -- The inventor of the "Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed," which brought weary travelers 15 minutes of "tingling relaxation and ease" for a quarter in hotel rooms across America, has died. He was 92.

During its heyday in the 1960s and '70s, Magic Fingers was a pop culture icon.

Inventor John Joseph Houghtaling (pronounced HUFF-tay-ling) died Wednesday at his home in Fort Pierce, Fla., his son Paul said Friday in a telephone interview.

Tinkering in the basement of his New Jersey home, Houghtaling invented the "Magic Fingers" machine in 1958.

The coin-operated device was mounted onto beds, and putting a quarter in the slot bought 15 minutes of "tingling relaxation and ease," according to its label.

"Put in a quarter, turn out the light, Magic Fingers makes ya feel all right," Jimmy Buffett sang in "This Hotel Room."

Kitschy and titillating, Magic Fingers remained a staple of American pop culture even after the device began disappearing from motels. The vibrations triggered a beer explosion in the movie "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," and FBI agents Mulder and Scully relaxed to the pulsations in an episode of "The X Files."

Fox's News Channel's Brit Hume sang the Buffett lyric to former President George W. Bush and his father in a January interview when they mentioned a vibrating chair in the Oval Office.

In a 1963 New York Times profile, Houghtaling said he was selling beds with a built-in vibrating mechanism when he realized during a repair job that it would be much cheaper to create something that would attach to the outside of an existing bed.

"After ripping away the frills, I found that it was the vibrator that counted, not the bed," he recalled. "Magic Fingers was born then and there."

He moved the company to Miami in 1968 and remained its president until he retired in the 1980s, when the rights to the device were sold. The current owners still sell the machines for home use.

After he retired, Houghtaling continued to invent and sell coin-operated machines, such as scales and pulse-checking devices.

Magic Fingers was a family business from the beginning, said Paul Houghtaling, who lives in Alexandria, Va. His oldest brother remembers working on the machine in the family basement in New Jersey, and all four of the inventor's sons worked for the company in high school and college.

"I crawled under an awful lot of beds and installed an awful lot of Magic Fingers and collected an awful lot of quarters," Paul Houghtaling said.

He still has a Magic Fingers on his bed, he said, much like the ones the family had at home — operated with timers, not coin-operated like those in motels.

"It was cool as a kid to know your father's invention was all over the country," Paul Houghtaling said.

In its heyday, there were about 175 Magic Fingers franchise operators across the country, and the gadgets collected $6,000 to $7,000 a month in quarters, Houghtaling's son said.

By the late 1970s, dealers complained they spent more money to repair devices that thieves broke open. Houghtaling developed a debit card-like system for the machines to replace the coin slots, but the idea never took off.

"He was trying to move it to a cashless mechanism so people wouldn't have any reason to break into them," his son said. "Unfortunately, it was kind of ahead of its time."

Houghtaling was born Nov. 14, 1916, in Kansas City, Mo. He liked to say he barely made it out of high school, his son said, and he never went to college.

He joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and flew 20 combat missions. He is survived by his four sons and a daughter.

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