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One year ago: John Houghtaling

June 17, 2010 |  6:07 am

The invention by which John Houghtaling made his name was a cultural touchstone for a generation of travelers. Next to the television, it was one of the most pervasive amenities in motels in the 1960s and '70s. What was his claim to fame? The vibrating Magic Fingers bed.

Working in his New Jersey basement, Houghtaling 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 enticed children and adults alike.

Within a few years of his invention, 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.

The coin machines became a popular target for thieves, however, and the machines fell out of favor. Houghtaling sold the company in the 1980s, and it has changed hands several times. Now, a mail-order company sells a re-engineered model for the home on the Internet.

A song written by Steve Goodman and sung by Jimmy Buffett is a testament to the vibrating bed's prominence in its heyday:

Put in a quarter

Turn out the light

Magic Fingers makes

ya feel alright. . . .

For more on John Houghtaling's life and famous inventions, read his obituary in The Times.

-- Michael Farr

Photo: John Houghtaling in 2007. Credit: Paul J. Milette / Palm Beach (Fla.) Post