Rachel Maines
Technology Historian
06:59

The Steam-Powered, Coal-Fired Vibrator

The Steam-Powered, Coal-Fired Vibrator

The “Technology of Orgasm” author recounts the outrageous history of female genital “manipulators,” from water-powered turbines to the contraption called the Chattanooga.

Rachel Maines

Rachel Maines is a visiting scientist in the Cornell University School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Her principal research interests lie in the history of technology, especially issues relating to technology and the body, such as sexuality, medicine, technological risk, and injury epidemiology. She is the author of three books: "The Technology of Orgasm: 'Hysteria,' Vibrators, and Women's Sexual Satisfaction" (1999), "Asbestos and Fire: Technological Tradeoffs and the Body at Risk" (2005), and her most recent, "Hedonizing Technologies: Pathways to Pleasure in Hobbies and Leisure," published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009.

Transcript

Question: What were the earliest vibrators like?

Rachel Maines: They came out of massage, hand technology for massage. There is some, there's a connection with water, hydro therapy, any woman who owns a shower massage can explain the details to you, if you need them explained, which you probably don't, but in any case, it's possible that even normal women knew about this, we're not sure. But in any case, there's the connection with hydrotherapy and then you wonder why Saratoga was so popular in the 19th century, especially with women? The men would go off and gamble and the women would go for the water cure. And some times it was very respectable and, you know, they just bathed at the water and everything was cool but there was also thing called the douche, the Scotch douche, that was, I've seen pictures of it, it was pretty startling. Anyway, those technologies, 1869, an American, George Taylor, invents a machine he calls the manipulator, which is basically a steam-powered, coal-fired vibrator. And because all you have to do is say steam powered vibrator and start to snicker, you know--it is a funny idea.

The doctors didn't like this thing because, of course it was what they, what we historians of technology call a centralized technology, you have to bring the patient to the technology, you can't take the technology to the patient. And of course, the other thing doctors didn't like about it was having to shovel coal into it. You know, because that's what, you know, it wasn't in the same room with the patient, you know how in pictures of 19th century factories, you see all these drive trains that are leather straps? Well, that's how the power was transferred, there was a steam engine in one room with a drive train, and in the next room, at the other end of the drive train, was this table with a vibrating sphere in the middle of it that you would lay the patient across and that was the, so that was the immediate predecessor technology.

And then in the 1880s, in Britain, a fellow by the name of Joseph Mortimer Granille invents the modern electro mechanical vibrator that we all know and love, and it was attached to, because there was no line electricity in 1883, it was attached to this huge, 40-pound wet cell battery, slosh, slosh, that you had to tote around if you wanted to take it anywhere, and it was attached by these completely uninsulated wires, you look at them now and you go, "Ooh," and wrapped around these little brass posts. And the vibrator itself, the vibrating mechanism, it's basically just a sloppy electrical motor, you know, all motors vibrate because they're slightly sloppy, well, you just make it a little sloppier on purpose and the thing will vibrate, right? Easy enough. Things about like this, it's wrapped, it's got a leather covering around it, and it's got these vibratodes with little ivory, little ivory tips on them. The vibratodes are what we would now call the attachments. My husband thinks that vibratodes is a really great word and he's trying to get it back into the language, you know, like maybe as a name of a rock group, you know, “Crazy Eddie and the Vibratodes.” But anyway, it had attachments, even as early as the very first model. And it was manufactured by a perfectly respectable British instrument maker, which is still in business, Weiss, but they didn't stay in the vibrator business very long after things started to look a little shaky.

At the turn of the century, they had, the vibrator kind of split into two product lines. One was for doctors and one was for consumers and doctors really hated the idea that there were consumer vibrators out there. But you know, when the market speaks, you know, everybody listens, including doctors, they better. There were these relatively inexpensive, some that looked like an egg beater for people who didn't have electricity. And it sounded like one, too, "Drrrr, drrrr," and there were battery powered ones, there were even water-powered ones that you could attach to your sink, this was before water was metered. So it's like basically little tiny turbines, about this big and they apparently worked, I've never seen one, a real one, but I've seen ads.

And then the ones that everybody thinks are the funniest, which are the doctor's models. Because they look like, there's one that I have a picture of that looks like a cross between a visitor from outer space and an old-fashioned telephone, and it's got this dial with little mother of pearl buttons that don't have anything on them at all. So it's just like fast, faster, fastest. But you got to look scientific, so you have the little mother of pearl buttons, right? Brrrroooommmm, you know, the patient will be so impressed, and these were quite expensive. The model that everybody seems to like the best, the Chattanooga, which had to be shipped by freight because it was so heavy, it stood about 5 feet tall and in fact, it's in the Vibrator play, they **** from Sarah Wolfe's play. They've made a rooftop Chattanooga and it rolls on wheels and it had to have a huge counterweight, about this big, because with the vibratode attached to the vibrating head at about the five foot level, if you roll it up to the, roll it around, it would've fall over if it didn't have this counterweight. Because people always ask why is there this box on the bottom and that stuff, it’s because it's so, it looked so top heavy it would fall over. And that one cost $100 at a time when you could buy a small house for $200. So these are very expensive machines and of course, in the 1920's, they all just disappeared because doctors didn't want to have anything more to do with vibrators.

So that's where the technology came from. Meanwhile, the consumer technology is going off into the direction that really, except for being all made of metal instead of plastic, they're not distinguishable from modern vibrators. Sears used to make one, a vibrator, in fact, you could buy a motor, there's a picture of this in my book on vibrators, you could buy a motor from Sears, a little electric motor about yay, and you could buy a vibrator attachment, a beater, a grinder, a fan, a mixer, and I think there were a couple, buffer, there was a buffer as well. So you know, no home should be without one. And they weren't even that expensive, you know? But as I say, doctors didn't like it because there was all this self-treatment going on, but doctors always disapprove of self-treatment.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen

×
comments powered by Disqus
×