The History of the Vibrator
As soon as the power of steam had been harnessed at the start of the Industrial Revolution, we were trying to find devious and naughty ways to use it. It’s in our nature; like the first thing we did when movie cameras became commercially available was film ourselves having sex. So it was almost inevitable that, in 1734, the world was introduced to the ‘Tremoussoir’, a rather scary-looking French contraption that was designed to provide automated vibrating relief for women. Yes, it’s every bit as sexual as it sounds. Let me explain.
The tale of the vibrator finds its unlikely beginning several thousand years ago with a certain Mr. Hippocrates and his concept of hysteria. Hippocrates believed that the womb was not a fixed organ as such, but that it meandered around the body and caused all sorts of strife in women. For example, he believed that at the moment of orgasm the womb (or ‘hysteros’ in Greek, hence ‘hysteria’) moved up the woman’s body and constricted her windpipe, causing the heavy panting that women so agreeably make. Hippocrates blamed the womb for a variety of women’s issues, from nervousness to insomnia, from fluid retention to lack of appetite. A later Greek doctor called Galen elaborated on this theory, claiming that the symptoms were caused by sexual deprivation and found the problem most predominantly in nuns, virgins, widows and bored housewives. Happily, Galen prescribed orgasms to cure these ailments. Yeah, can you imagine taking THAT prescription to your local chemist?
Hysterical Masturbation Machines
So for centuries, doctors treated ‘hysteria’, and all that it included, by inducing orgasms in their patients. The problem was that, because ‘hysteria’ was such a broad diagnosis and covered so many symptoms, doctors had to treat a lot of women. Doctors began to regard this procedure as unbearably boring, not to mention time-consuming and a very uneconomical way to spend there valuable time. Since masturbation was not encouraged in women, they weren’t allowed to ‘treat’ themselves and doctors needed to find a way to, you know, speed the process along a bit. They needed automatic bean-flicking machines, and it was the French who were most innovative in this area. The Tremoussoir was their first effort, and if the pictures of it are anything to go by then I imagine it was a noisy bugger. It’s all copper boilers and pipes and stuff. I imagine using it would be a bit like having sex with Frankenstein’s laboratory. Around 1860, the French also developed sort of pelvic douche thing that squirted pressurised water from a bloody great hosepipe directly onto the clitoris, eventually producing an orgasm.
But quickly, these machines would be abandoned in favour of steam-powered contraptions like the 1870’s Manipulator. It looks a bit like an automatic and heavily adapted spinning wheel, which leads me to suspect that the whole thing was devised by a lonely housewife with a talent for carpentry.
Following this, all manner of new vibrating machines were produced. Some were chairs, some were tables, all were steam powered and very intimidating. It’s probably pretty hard to climax when it sounds like the Titanic’s engine room is exploding between your thighs.
These machines were all steps in the right direction, but none of them really vibrated (not on purpose, anyway). That advance wouldn’t come until steam power was abandoned in favour of this new-fangled ‘electricity’. Around the turn of the 19th Century there were already several electrical vibrators on the medical market and they were MUCH smaller, more efficient and more reliable than anything that had vibrated before them. They were handheld, accurate and remarkably powerful; for example the White Cross Electric Vibrator no. 8, released in 1914, was capable of 7000 pulses per minute. That’s not far from modern vibrators and it’s no wonder that they proved popular. They were advertised openly and used commonly, even claiming to cure things as banal as dandruff, according to the testimonials that appeared in newspapers.
However, their popularity would ultimately be their downfall. They became available on the open market, taking them out of the doctor’s office and ultimately tarnishing them with a sense of dirtiness. As soon as vibrators were common in people’s homes they lost the impression that they were medical devices, and they lost their credibility. Doctors stopped using them, and for half a century vibrators were not really seen or heard of. Some were still available, marketed as ‘neck massagers’ and that sort of thing, but for the most part vibrators fell off the face of the planet. They would remerge only very slowly, and the word ‘vibrator’ which had been so common before was now used exclusively to refer to sex toys (apart from one very interesting use I spotted from 1968 in Wacky Races, where Penelope Pitstop has one in her dashboard).
With the proliferation of sex shops from the 70s onwards, vibrators are slowly rejoining the mainstream and curing women the world over of their ‘hysteria’. Highstreet shops like Ann Summers and quality internet sites are slowly repairing the damage done to the reputation of the personal vibrator. Still, I quite fancy a go on ‘The Manipulator…’