Inventor behind Magic Fingers vibrating motel beds dies at 92

John Joseph Houghtaling, 92, inventor of the vibrating Magic Fingers bed that once was pervasive in motel rooms and became a cultural touchstone for a generation of American travelers, has died.

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Houghtaling died Wednesday at his Fort Pierce home of a brain hemorrhage after apparently falling and hitting his head, said his son Paul.

In 1958, Houghtaling (pronounced HUFF-tay-ling) devised the Magic Fingers machines after he was hired to sell a combination mattress and box spring with a preinstalled vibrating mechanism. The beds didn't sell well and were far too expensive, but he thought he saw a way to shake quarters out of motel guests.

Working in his New Jersey basement, he developed a fist-size motor that snapped onto existing box springs, transforming the bed into a "relaxation service," as the Magic Fingers coin machines would advertise.

By feeding a quarter into a machine, motel guests could purchase about 15 minutes of shaking, a curious luxury that surely enticed children traveling with their parents, said Ed Watkins, editor of Lodging Hospitality magazine.

Within a few years, Houghtaling was selling more than $1 million worth of the devices annually to franchise operators, who installed them in motels on a revenue-sharing basis, according to a 2002 Wall Street Journal article.

At the height of their popularity, about 250,000 of the gadgets were in place across the country. The average coin box took in eight quarters a week, which added up to about $2 million a month in sales, American Heritage magazine reported in 2000.

Increasingly, the coin boxes were targeted by thieves, and motel owners gradually came to see Magic Fingers as a nuisance. Houghtaling developed a magnetic-strip debit card system for the machines, his son said, but it was too late.

Houghtaling sold the company in the 1980s and it has changed hands several times. A mail-order company sells a re-engineered model for the home on the Internet.

Magic Fingers became entwined with pop culture. Jimmy Buffett sang about them in the mid 1970s in This Hotel Room. The 1987 film Planes, Trains & Automobiles featured a beer-can explosion on a Magic Fingers-equipped bed. And long after the machines had largely disappeared from motel rooms, TV's The X-Files showed Agent Dana Scully plunking quarters into a Magic Fingers at a motor inn.

Houghtaling was born Nov. 14, 1916, in Kansas City, Mo., to John and Edna Houghtaling. His father was a telegraph lineman, and his mother ran a shop that made doughnuts and potato chips.

Inventor behind Magic Fingers vibrating motel beds dies at 92 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 7:05pm]

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