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% 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% 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 2nd 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.