David Palmer created the first massage chair in 1986, for Living Earth Crafts.
Since the introduction of what was basically a wooden box with a face cradle, the massage chair has become ubiquitous at public events and locales, from health fairs to airports and grocery stores to Google.
Today, Palmer is an advocate for massage chair benefits—including its use as a means of introducing the public to healthy touch; growing a table massage clientele; and as a stand-alone specialty, through his training and on-site business, TouchPro International.
On April 1 The History Channel featured Palmer and the massage chair on an episode of “Million Dollar Genius,” which can be viewed on Palmer’s business website and as of this writing was viewable by subscribers on the History Channel’s website as well.
Palmer spoke with MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief Karen Menehan about massage chair benefits and the anniversary of what might be the most revolutionary type of massage equipment ever invented.
How does it feel for you, realizing that your invention is 30 years old now?
It’s amazing. It’s kind of wild to have developed something that is not a technique but is a tool that has been duplicated many, many times—the current estimate is 300,000 chairs have been sold at a retail cost of $90 million.
[The chair is] a physical manifestation of an idea, the idea of massaging someone in a seated position. That idea isn’t new; that idea has been around for millennia. It gave a physical image of something people could touch and look at and sit in, and that has been its real value.
It was a big spotlight that pointed at massage in a seated position and said, “This is real, this is professional.”
What was the massage field’s early response to the chair?
We had shown it around to a few local festivals in the [San Francisco] Bay Area, but the plan we had was to take it to massage schools. In 1986, the American Massage Therapy Association was hosting the Council of Schools at its conference in Seattle, Washington, so there I was, having never done anything nationally with massage before, and I stood in a circle of tables and 31 massage school owners. I took the chair apart, set it up, put [SunCoast Massage Therapy Center co-founder] Alex Spassoff in the chair, and starting working on him and talking about it.
Within the next 18 months, I had scheduled and done 24 seminars at massage schools throughout the world, including the U.S., Sweden and Australia. It just exploded.
What can you say about the technology and quality of chairs on the market today compared with 30 years ago?
The first massage chair, the Living Earth Crafts High Touch Massage Chair, lasted until the mid-90s, and then got overrun by lighter materials. The first chair was too heavy, 26 pounds out of the box, and it didn’t have a tilting face cradle. Those two things kind of doomed it.
It also wasn’t easy to fold up. Today’s massage chairs, you can fold up in 10 to 15 seconds. The first chair took, in general, about 45 seconds if someone was familiar with where everything went. It took practice, in other words.
The chairs today are much lighter, which is a big factor, and of course they have that tilting face cradle. The one thing they don’t have that hasn’t been duplicated from the original chair is [it was] about half the size of any of the folded-up massage chairs that exist today. Today’s are much bulkier.
There are still practitioners today who think that original chair was the most comfortable chair on the market; it had a kind of give, and a rocking thing that would happen. That chair was almost like its own little lullaby. But the problem was it wasn’t adjustable for practitioners. It was kind of one-size-fits-all, no matter the size of the practitioner—tall, short, whatever.
The chairs of the 1990s began to address the adjustability issues, and then the weight issue. And that’s when people began experimenting with metal and steel. For these companies to move from wood to metal, that was a really big deal for these people who were basically woodworkers, to get the machinery and tools to manufacture these chairs.
How has chair massage introduced massage to consumers?
I call chair massage “performance massage” because oftentimes there’s an audience—and we like that, because it lowers the marketing barrier.
The best way to market chair massage is by getting somebody on the chair. The second best way is for people to see someone in the chair, because it’s the visual that really sinks into people.
So, having people watch it has been incredibly helpful. When you are at an event, you don’t want the chair to be hidden away. You want it to be visible.
Airports are a good example, because virtually every airport location I see, they put the chair massage out in the front. Often at airports there are no walls surrounding the chair massage.
How are massage therapists using the massage chair today?
I’m on this show called “Million Dollar Genius,” and I don’t feel like either. I certainly haven’t made a million dollars from it, but I think some other people have, such as national massage chair registries. It’s been something that, from the start, if people were determined and entrepreneurial, they could do well either doing massage conventions and shows, or as a workplace massage business.
Where chair massage is picking up in the U.S. market—that’s grown up in a large way—is the retail chair massage market. If you have a retail establishment, people can call up and have you come for a small group, such as at a condo or home.
The three most common ways people utilize chair massage are, you can do chair massage exclusively, or in combination with a table practice, or use chair massage to market table massage, such as giving it away for free to introduce your work.
You might have a table practice, and a client might say, “Hey, would you like to come into the workplace?” People also work doing chair massage for a chair massage vendor—someone who has a registry, and then it’s permissible to build table clients out of that.
What are some of the unusual or unique places you’ve seen chair massage performed?
One of my affiliates set up a chair on the Chunnel train. It lasted for a few months.
Another one I loved was the person doing chair massage in South Lake Tahoe on a paddlewheel boat. I also have a photo of someone with a massage chair in Red Square in Moscow. It’s been pretty much everywhere.
What is the future of chair massage?
It’s growing faster in other countries than in the U.S. It’s always been hampered in the U.S., because the massage industry that grew up in the early 1980s focused on turning massage into a health care service, and still does, to a great extent, so you can’t do chair massage in most places unless you’ve taken a 500-hour program to learn table massage. Canada and the U.S. are real outliers in this respect.
I’m working with groups in London, France and Trinidad to put together chair massage training programs with zero table massage in between. My hope is someday the U.S. massage industry will wake up and realize that most people will never be able to afford a table massage, but most people can afford a chair massage.
We’ve had virtually no support from the schools, state licensing boards and associations. The massage industry establishment has given no support to help chair massage evolve into an independent entity in the massage world. Chair massage has always been treated like an ugly stepchild [in the U.S., but is] thriving in Australia, South America, Asian countries and Europe.
Nobody wants to hear it, because basically what I am saying is if you are inventing the massage industry from the ground up today, the only way you could possibly imagine it would make sense would be to teach everyone chair massage first, because that is what is safe, convenient and affordable to people.
But we have an ocean liner moving in one direction, and it’s not easy to turn that around. And believe me, I’ve been trying for the past 30 years.
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She has edited and written for additional publications and organizations, including Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation. She wrote “Getting to the Heart of Prejudice in Health Care” and “Massage Envy Launches Plan for Global Domination” for massagemag.com.