John Houghtaling, Inventor of Magic Fingers

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

John Houghtaling, who put a little buzz in America's motel rooms with his invention of Magic Fingers, a once-ubiquitous device that caused beds to vibrate in a gentle rocking motion, died June 17 after a fall at his home in Fort Pierce, Fla. He was 92.

Mr. Houghtaling (pronounced huff-tail-ing) had been a successful salesman of vitamins and cookware when he began working for a manufacturer of vibrating beds in the 1950s. Because the beds were expensive and unreliable, Mr. Houghtaling decided that there had to be a cheaper and more effective way to make them.

He had always been a handyman and tinkerer, and in the basement of his home in Glen Rock, N.J., he experimented with 300 motors before finding the right formula in 1958. If the motor was too slow or too fast, he learned, it could either toss someone off the bed or not move at all.

He patented a small, hand-size device that clipped onto a bed frame and produced a vibrating effect. The motor didn't shake the whole bed, son Paul Houghtaling said in a telephone interview, but created a gentle vibrating sensation through the resonance of sound waves among the motor, bed frame and springs.

Mr. Houghtaling traveled to motels throughout the country to demonstrate his invention, which was marketed under the slogan, "It quickly takes you into the land of tingling and relaxation and ease."

It cost 25 cents for 15 minutes, and the quarters quickly added up. At the peak of its popularity, Magic Fingers could be found in 250,000 motel rooms and Mr. Houghtaling's company was taking in $2 million a month. Magic Fingers became a part of pop culture, with mentions in a song by Jimmy Buffett, on the TV show "Roseanne" and in the Doonesbury comic strip.

By the 1970s, however, vandals were breaking into the Magic Fingers coin boxes, and motel owners found it increasingly costly to keep replacing them. Not to be deterred, in 1976 Mr. Houghtaling patented a device that would read a magnetic strip on a card, thus eliminating the need to put money into a metered box.

It was the same principle as the modern debit card, and Mr. Houghtaling demonstrated his apparatus in a presentation to authorities of the D.C. Metro system. But in the era before the SmarTrip card, Metro officials decided to go with farecards instead, and Mr. Houghtaling's invention proved to be ahead of its time.

"He never made any money off it," his son said.

John Joseph Houghtaling was born Nov. 14, 1916, in Kansas City, Mo., and grew up in Bloomington, Ill. He was a hotel bellman in Florida before he joined the Army Air Forces. He flew 20 missions as a gunner on B-17 bombers during World War II.

During the Korean War, he ran the officers' club at an Air Force base in Roswell, N.M. In all the time he was there, his son said, Mr. Houghtaling never heard anyone talk about UFOs or aliens in Roswell.

Mr. Houghtaling then moved to New Jersey, where he sold vitamins, sewing machines and cookware. Borrowing a page from Tupperware, he became a top seller of pots and pans by conducting dinner parties in private homes.

In 1968, a decade after his invention of Magic Fingers, he moved his company from New Jersey to Coral Gables, Fla. He sold the business in 1980, but Magic Fingers is still operating, with a focus on home consumers.

Mr. Houghtaling dabbled in other enterprises and lived aboard a yacht, called Magic Fingers, in Fort Pierce. In 2004, Hurricane Frances destroyed his boat, which was never found.

His marriage to Ruth Houghtaling ended in divorce. His second wife, Rita Breier Houghtaling, died in 2002.

Survivors include five children from his first marriage, John Houghtaling of Franklin Lakes, N.J., Paul Houghtaling of Alexandria, Alison Lincoln, Mark Houghtaling and Chris Houghtaling, all of Miami; and four grandchildren.

Mr. Houghtaling once appeared on "What's My Line?" a TV quiz show in which panelists guessed a person's occupation. After one member of the panel complained that the Magic Fingers on his motel bed hadn't worked, Mr. Houghtaling flipped him a quarter.

"He was a pretty colorful guy," said Paul Houghtaling, a political consultant in Washington. His father was known for pithy sayings called "John-isms," and son Paul quoted several from memory: "The only way to coast is downhill"; "the expensive lessons to learn are what not to do"; and "I'd rather be rich and miserable than poor and miserable any day."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company