A Traveling Standard: The Vibrating Bed

Retro Staff 3 Comments

For a quarter, US travelers in the ’60s and ’70s could find 15 minutes of “tingling relaxation and ease” in hotel beds. An electric device, called Magic Fingers, was mounted to hundreds of thousands of beds, making it a pop culture icon.

Magic Fingers machine

The Magic Fingers "Relaxation Service" cost 25-cents to operate and units could make up to $7,000 per month.

Magic Fingers inventor, John Joseph Houghtaling (Huff-Tay-Ling), created the machine in his New Jersey basement in 1958. He’d been selling beds with built-in devices, but after a lengthy repair job realized that it wasn’t the bed that mattered as much as the machine itself.

“After ripping away the frills,” Houghtaling said, “I found that it was the virbrator that counted, not the bed.”

So he tinkered with hundreds of motors in order to find the best one to attach to the box springs of all types of existing beds. The coin operation was modeled after similar units used on televisions and radios.

In its prime, about 175 franchise operators installed and maintained Magic Fingers machines across America and it’s reported more than 1 million had been installed in homes and hotels throughout the US and Europe. The devices could fetch up to $7,000 per month.

Hotel sign advertising Magic Fingers.

Some motels advertised the machine, giving it as much importance as in-room television.

The decline of the vibration machine wasn’t so much a result of loss of interest as it was theivery. Dealers in the late 1970s said they spent more time and money fixing devices people would break open to snatch the quarters.

In hopes to keep business moving, Houghtaling worked on a debit card-like system, but the concept was way ahead of its time.

In the 1980s Houghtaling sold the rights to Magic Fingers and the new owners focused on home-use machines (no quarters required).

But it’s the original device found in motel rooms that gets the most attention.

Interesting mentions of the Magic Fingers machine include:

                • In the song “This Hotel Room”, Jimmy Buffet sings: Put in a quarter, turn out the light, Magic Fingers makes you feel all right.
                • In the book Slaughterhouse Five protagonist Billy Pilgrim uses a vibrating bed to fall asleep.
                • A vibrating bed caused a beer explosion in the film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Houghtaling was a gunnery instructor during WWII who flew 20 bomber missions. He died on June 17, 2009.

They say at the time of his death, some motels in the Western United States still had the Magic Fingers machine installed.

Were you a traveler during the ’60s and ’70s? Did your motel room come equipped with this hit device? Share your stories…


Last updated: Apr 06, 2012
Filed under: Retro Memories Tagged with: retro vacations, traveling, vibrating bed