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The Steam-Powered Vibrator And Other Early Sex Machines

As long as humans have had genitals, we’ve found artificial ways to stimulate them. But it took the repressed Victorian era to create the vibrator, a device aimed at curing a disease that doesn’t exist.

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, a time where those without honeybears to take out to dinner are probably feeling a little lonely. And you know what happens when people get lonely: they go to town on themselves. According to Pamela Doan of Babeland, one of the biggest sex toy shops around, sales were up 22 per cent overall last February, with Valentine’s Day itself being the highest single retail sales day they ever had. In fact, they were so high that they accounted for 19 per cent of Babeland’s sales for the entire year. That’s a lot of vibrators.

I talked about the earliest vibrators with Dr Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, the definitive history of vibrators and the repressed era that spawned them. I had no problem talking to Dr Maines about vibrators, but back in the 19th century, talking about masturbation was very taboo. So the first vibrators weren’t marketed as such. Instead, they were sold as medical devices used to treat “hysteria”, hysteria being something that ladies came down with when they hadn’t gotten their rocks off in a while.

According to the second-century anatomist Galen, hysteria was caused by the retention of “female semen”, which could get into the blood and corrupt it. So clearly, it had to be periodically let loose.

So doctors took to “curing” hysteric single women who didn’t have a husband to cure them of their ailments the normal way. They would stimulate the vagina until “parosysm” (read: orgasm) was achieved. But their hands got tired so quickly, what with all the vigorous rubbing required. And so the vibrator came into existence.

Vibrators have been around longer than electricity has – the first model came out in 1734 and used a crank like some sort of hedonistic egg beater – but it took electricity to really bring them to the mainstream.

According to Dr Maines, all vibrators are just inefficient motors. “All motors vibrate. If you make a motor that’s especially sloppy, it’ll vibrate more. That’s the principle behind the vibrator: a very sloppy motor that’s designed to vibrate.” An efficient motor, such as the one that runs your fridge, would make for a seriously crappy vibrator. But the Manipulator, which was essentially an inefficient steam engine with a dildo attached to it, did the job swimmingly.

One of the first mechanical vibrators was the steam-powered Manipulator (pictured up top), invented by Dr George Taylor in 1869. This monster machine hid its engine in another room with the apparatus sticking through the wall. Terrifying!

Today, vibrators have come a long way. First of all, they don’t require an entire room to run properly. Secondly, they can be purchased for their intended use instead of pretending like they’re curing whatever disease it is that makes women horny. Add onto that the advancements made in plastics and moulding makes them feel less like cold appliances. It’s the golden age of vibrators, everyone!

To make you truly thankful for the era we live in, here’s a selection of some of the weirdest and most uncomfortable-looking vibrators to ever see the light of day, with descriptions courtesy of Dr Maines. The Manipulator is scary, sure. But then there’s the Electro-Spatteur, which spiced up its vibrations with electric shocks. You can’t make this stuff up.

The Birtman was an office model available to physicians in 1904. The motor is inside the large housing at the top; vibratodes were attached to the gun-shaped applicator at the end of the cable. The image is from Snow, Mary Lydia Hastings Arnold. Mechanical vibration and its therapeutic application. New York: Scientific authors’ Pub. Co., 1904.

The Electrospatteur, another physician’s model, delivered a combination of vibration with a mild electrical shock. It was manufactured by the Armstrong Electric Company of Indianapolis about 1901.

The Victor was manufactured by Keystone Electric of Philadelphia in 1903. The left side was a vibrator, the speed of which was controlled by the lever in the middle of the console, the one over the (unlabelled) mother-of-pearl speed indicators. The right side was a pneumatic attachment, which, like a vacuum cleaner, could either inhale or exhale. It could, as it were, either blow or suck, depending on the user’s requirements.

The Weiss vibrator was, as far as I know, the first electromechanical vibrator to be commercially available, available by 1883 from the still-active British medical instrument manufacturer Weiss. It was based on the work of a British physician, from whose book this illustration is drawn: Granville, J. Mortimer. Nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of functional disorder and organic disease. London: Churchill, 1883.

Yalor is, like Taylor’s Manipulator, a steam-powered device of 1885, although the steam-engine is out of frame (to the right) in the picture. It was used for what was then known as “Swedish Massage”, as shown.

The Potsdam jolting chair dates from about 1890; the technology may have originated at the Salpetriere in Paris. The patient, sitting in the chair, pulled back on the two handles and received a jolt that was intended to replicate the supposed therapeutic effects of train travel.

For more information on the history of sex toys, be sure to check out The Technology of Orgasm by Dr Rachel P. Maines and Passion and Power, a documentary on the subject.

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