Pages From History: Vibration and Vibrators – Massage Magazine

Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert

Vibration and Vibrators, Part Two
Read Part One

This is a two-part series on the subject of vibrators. Part One took us from ancient Greece to the end of the 19th century. Part Two concludes with devices from the 20th century.

Steam-powered massage devices were created about 1875 and were often large mechanical monsters that accommodated more than one person at a time, such as John Harvey Kellogg, M.D.’s vibrating machine that provided foot, hand and full-body vibration treatments for up to five persons simultaneously. Most of these devices delivered either percussion or vibration and were used for specific medical conditions.

Kellogg Vibrator1.jpg (6837 bytes)
KelloggVibrator2.jpg (4244 bytes)
Kellogg’s "Vibrating Machines," circa 1895, used extensively at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. The first one is for "rotary vibration of the legs and arms," the other is a beating apparatus. Note the second set of beaters (on left) not being used.

Gustav Zander, M.D., a Swedish physician and director of the Medico-Mechanical Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, gained widespread fame at the end of the 19th century because of his application of steam power to mechano-therapy. Only a few of Zander’s more than 70 steam-powered devices were massage machines. Zander’s devices were so popular, and their application to the gymnastic movement so widely accepted, that Zander Institutes were opened throughout Europe and the United States.

George Taylor, M.D., is credited with being the first American to create a steam and foot/hand crank device, in 1880. Taylor’s "Manipulator" simply turned a wheel, which pushed a rod that created a movement on a handle or padded surface. The patient would either hold on to the handle and receive the vibration or oscillations, or sit or stand against the padded surface to receive the movement from the machine.

In 1882 Hartvig Nissen presented a new invention called "the Vibrator" in his book, A Manual of Instruction For Giving Swedish Movement and Massage Treatment. Invented by J. W. Osborne, Nissen claimed it was made especially for his institute and that, by 1889, he’d been using it with success for three years. However, Zander, Taylor and Kellogg were using mechanically applied vibration and percussion during the 1880s.

The first attempts at electrical massage were either battery-powered devices or those operated by foot or hand mechanisms moving a wheel or friction belt. One of the first battery-powered massage devices was the Swedish vibrator. This little device was made of solid brass attached to a wooden handle. Etched into the sides of the brass body are images of lightning bolts indicating the electrical character of the device.

Brass_Swedish.jpg (4111 bytes)The Brass Swedish Vibrator, a dry-cell battery-powered device, circa 1875. This tool was made of solid brass attached to a wooden handle that created an up-and-down motion of the round bakelite head.
VibratorInBox.jpg (4875 bytes)The first alternating current electrical vibrator from 1902. Note the light-socket device at the end of the electrical cord. Because very few homes or offices had electrical outlets during the first decade of the 20th century, but did have electric lights hanging from the ceiling, the first vibrators had a screw-in device wired into the end of the cord, to place into the light bulb socket. The electrical cord was also exceptionally long because it had to reach from the ceiling to the floor.

The invention of Victorian vibrators using dry-cell batteries was the precursor to modern alkaline-battery powered vibrators, and the Victorian vibrators were often sold alongside the first alternating electric-current vibrators introduced in 1902.

The use of mechanical devices was both praised and criticized in the late 19th century. Taylor provides this discourse on the benefits of mechanical devices, in 1904: "The natural rate of motion of the voluntary muscles is considerably greater than is that of the involuntary which preside over the movements of the abdomen and its contents. The respiratory and the peristaltic movements are slower than those of the hand. It follows that motions, natural for the hand of a massage operator, do not so apply to visceral parts as to merge with and assist those of the latter. The imparted motion will not agree as to time with the pre-existing motion. This disagreement does not exist in case of the mechanical processes."

Taylor is saying the application of the human hand to voluntary muscles, such as those used in locomotion, can be properly calibrated to coincide with the rhythm and rate of those muscles, but that the hand cannot be calibrated to coincide with the slower-moving muscles of the internal organs, such as the colon and diaphragm, whereas mechanical devices can.

Most medical applications of these new approaches to massage were applied to women. In the 1820s, physicians began inducing orgasm – by water, the hands or horseback riding – through vibration, to cure what they termed "hysteria," in women. (The term "Hysteria" at that time referred to conditions including vertigo, anxiety, headaches, irritability, insomnia and depression.) The advent of mechanical methods of applying vibration improved the success of this practice. In her book, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachael Maines reports that physicians have failed in large part in writing about the connection between vibratory massage and the inducement of orgasm, except to say that vibratory massage was a common treatment for "hysteria."

Today there are literally hundreds of vibrating machines available, from vibrating pillows to vibrating plastic novelty ladybugs. You can even get vibrating ball point pens. Vibrators are used by chiropractors, massage practitioners, physical therapists and by millions at home.


Robert Noah Calvert is the founder and CEO of Massage Magazine. The material for this column comes from two sources: the World of Massage Museum’s collections and Calvert’s new book, The History of Massage published in February 2002 by Healing Arts Press.

Pages from History: 
by Robert Noah Calvert
Kellogg Vibrator1.jpg (6837 bytes)
KelloggVibrator2.jpg (4244 bytes)
Kellogg’s "Vibrating Machines," circa 1895, used extensively at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. The first one is for "rotary vibration of the legs and arms," the other is a beating apparatus. Note the second set of beaters (on left) not being used.
Brass_Swedish.jpg (4111 bytes)The Brass Swedish Vibrator, a dry-cell battery-powered device, circa 1875. This tool was made of solid brass attached to a wooden handle that created an up-and-down motion of the round bakelite head.
VibratorInBox.jpg (4875 bytes)The first alternating current electrical vibrator from 1902. Note the light-socket device at the end of the electrical cord. Because very few homes or offices had electrical outlets during the first decade of the 20th century, but did have electric lights hanging from the ceiling, the first vibrators had a screw-in device wired into the end of the cord, to place into the light bulb socket. The electrical cord was also exceptionally long because it had to reach from the ceiling to the floor.

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