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Magic Fingers

Matt Schudel

We've had two obituaries in the past two days, you could say, about magic fingers or "Magic Fingers."
The first, on Saturday, was Robert Thomason's obituary of Ali Akbar Khan, a Bengali musicain who was a virtuoso of Indian music and, in particular, the 25-string lutelike instrument called the sarod. (Robert Thomason, by the way, is an editor on the Post's Foreign staff with an interest in classical music.)

The violinist Yehudi Menuhin once called Khan "the greatest musician in the world," and there are plenty of examples of his playing all over the Internet. The following video is a good place to start, but the video clips, some including interviews in Hindi, are practically limitless.

Our other "Magic Fingers" obituary is about John Houghtaling, the inventor of Magic Fingers, the little device that kept motel mattresses vibrating for decades. (Well, the vibrations didn't last for decades; they lasted for only 15 minutes, with a 25-cent deposit.)

Houghtaling -- and you'll have to read the actual obit to figure out how to pronounce his name -- was a basement tinkerer who happened upon an invention that captured the nation's imagination for a while in the '60s and '70s. There no videos of Magic Fingers in action, alas, but there is a pretty comprehensive and tech-savvy article from American Heritage magazine, with this quote from the inventor himself: "We had experimental units, bedsprings with no padding on them, and we would run these things continuously for weeks at a time."

When they were working right, "we'd put a piece of cardboard on top of the bedsprings. The cardboard would bounce gently up and down and spin around in a circle and also rotate around the whole box spring, but it would never fall off the bed."

John Houghtaling was also known for his aphorisms, some of which I quote in the obituary. Here are a couple more, which I gleaned when I reached his son on the phone: "Face the facts in the face" and "Rich or poor, it's nice to have money."

By Matt Schudel  |  June 21, 2009; 5:58 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel  
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