When an American academic insisted that she had found vibrators dating from the turn of the century, she lost her teaching job. She tells Cynthia Kling how she uncovered a hidden history

AMONG THE electric eels and early pacemakers at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a collection of 11 battery-powered tools dating from the turn of the century. The oldest of the bunch, produced by the Weiss Instrument Manufacturing Company, is a rectangular metal box topped by a leather housing with a snaky arm hanging alongside it. Another, shaped like a modern blow-dryer with a rubber ball stuffed in the nozzle, purrs when you plug it in; and when you turn on a larger, flatter version of the blow-dryer, it vibrates and gives off mild, pinch-like shocks.

Until recently, none of these tools had been properly catalogued because the curators at the electrical appliance museum couldn't work out what they had had been used for. And then the historian Rachel Maines explained it to them. These were medical vibrators, used by Victorian and Edwardian doctors to masturbate their female patients back to health.

IN 1986 Rachel Maines lost her teaching post at Clarkson University, in northern New York, when she published her first article on the history of vibrators in a Bakken Museum newsletter. The administration at Clarkson, according to Maines, was convinced that her research would drive away alumni funders, and she lost her job there. (Clarkson has refused to comment on the incident.)

Three years later, Maines' piece on "Socially Camouflaged Technologies" appeared in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Technology and Society Magazine, whereupon she received a panicky phone call from the journal's editor, Robert Whelchel, who had been telephoned by his superiors: they furiously accused him of publishing an elaborate practical joke in the academic journal of this 118-year-old organisation. Whelchel was told that if he didn't produce proof of the existence and legitimacy of this so-called Rachel Maines at a formal inquiry to be held in a month, the IEEE might shut the magazine. Meanwhile, they set about investigating each of the 51 footnotes in her nine-page article. At the inquiry, a letter from the Society for the History of Technology was produced to verify that Maines did exist and was a serious scholar. The footnotes were verified, and the IEEE disbelievers backed off. Last year she wrote up her findings in The Technology of Orgasm, published by John Hopkins Press.

MAINES, WHO has a degree in the history of technology, began her research into vibrators in the late 1970s, while studying the history of needlework. In turn-of-the-century magazines such as Modern Women and Hearst's, tucked between the ads for Ivory soap, skin creams and emmenagogue (abortion- inducing herbs), she found some puzzling pictures. "I kept seeing these ads of women pulling their dresses down and applying these tools to their necks and backs. The copy under the advertisements promised that the instruments were `thrilling, invigorating', that `all the penetrating pleasures of youth will throb in you again'. I kept thinking to myself, this can't be what I think it is."

Eventually Maines became convinced that she was, after all, on to something, and she wrote to the Bakken Museum of Electricity to ask them if they had any appliances that matched the pictures and descriptions in the advertisements. The curators invited her to come out and see some tools they had stuck away in their basement. For want of a better term, they had catalogued them as "musculo-skeletal relaxation devices".

The tools that Maines saw there were the epitome of turn-of-the-century design. The bodies were made of metal, the handles of wood or Bakelite, and the whole weighed anything between five and 15 pounds, depending on the size of the motor. Simple models sold for about $5. More luxurious versions, which came in velveteen-lined boxes with brass fittings, went for as much as $20.

But there were no instructions as to how to use these small appliances or what they were for, which is why the Bakken curators had been confused. "You have to remember that this was the Victorian era," says Maines, "when things weren't exactly spelled out. They just assumed that everyone knew what was going on."

Maines read up on the history of medicine in the 19th century and concluded that these vibrating machines were designed to treat a condition that doctors claimed arose from the failure to achieve orgasm: hysteria.

The term hysteria, meaning "womb disease", began appearing in Egyptian texts as early as 2000BC, when healers observed that women, unlike men, didn't always release fluids during sexual intercourse. As a result, it was reasoned, they would accumulate in the womb, causing all sorts of problems - headaches, irritability, fear of impending insanity, hysteria. Plato believed that in really serious situations, the engorged uterus could disentangle itself from the genital region, float up and strangle the sufferer. By the first century AD, genital massage and exercise had become standard treatments for this chronic and common complaint; and over the next two centuries doctors experimented with everything they could think of to shake things loose, from vibrating chairs to high-powered water douches.

In the 1870s, under the leadership of the great early master of French psychiatry Jean-Martin Charcot, physicians at the Salpetriere hospital, Paris, were experimenting with shaking machines, swings and train rides, as well as massage and electrotherapy. One clinician, Desire Magloire Bourneville, took on the massive project of photographing women progressing through various stages of orgasm, or "hysterical paroxysm", as it was scientifically called, and publishing them in a three-volume work. Giles de la Tourette published a similar book of line drawings; while the young Sigmund Freud studied the condition under Charcot. But Charcot wasn't very good at massage, according to Maines. Like other doctors, he complained that it was a time-consuming and tricky chore. Nathaniel Highmore, a 17th- century physician, had likened it to trying to rub your head and pat your stomach simultaneously.

None the less, it was a lucrative treatment. (And one with which doctors didn't have to worry about losing or injuring patients, as they did with blood-letting and cupping, two other medical practices popular at the time.) In 1873 the American doctor Russell Thatcher Trall noted that, of the $200m earned by the medical profession, "three-fourths of this sum - 150 millions - our physicians must thank frail women for".

What did these doctors actually think was going on in their so-called vibratory operating theaters? Did they consider the treatment they administered sexual or not? "Well," says Maines, "we all know, with a capital K, that real sex is penetration to male orgasm. If there isn't penetration to orgasm, there isn't sex." In the Victorian era, orgasm, or whatever the doctors and their female patients chose to call it, was seen as a sign of health - but not of sex. The view helps explain Queen Victoria's assumption that two women could not engage in a sexual act.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, more than 50 kinds of vibrators were invented. Some combined vibration with music, while others threw ultraviolet rays. "But the technology really took off," says Maines, "after the development of AC power. Battery-powered ones weren't that effective because they could never really deliver, or the thing would give out halfway through the job."

Once rural America had been wired, favourite domestic appliances were quickly made ready for the market by sharp industrialists. The first to be electrified was the sewing machine, in 1889, followed by the fan, the kettle and the toaster. Next was the vibrator, preceding the vacuum cleaner and the iron by a decade. It was a British doctor, Mortimer Granville, who came up with the first electro-mechanical vibrator, which was produced by the British manufacturer Weiss; this was one of the machines Maines found in the basement of the Bakken.

The Sears Roebuck catalogue in 1918 offered for sale every housewife's dream: a home motor that had attachments for churning, mixing, beating, grinding, fanning - and vibrating. Star put out a $5 portable model. "Six feet of cord," their advertisement trumpeted, "perfect for weekend trips." The White Cross brand, named after a British Episcopalian sexual purity organisation, was advertised as "wonderfully refreshing".

A treatment session in a physician's office cost at least $2, and doctors, of course, didn't like the fact that these machines were cutting into their businesses. From the start they tried to warn women away from what one doctor described as "these mere trinkets which accomplish little more than titillations of the tissues".

To show that their work was important medicine, not just titillation, doctors favoured machines that were large and reassuringly professional- looking. Maines says that her favourite is the Chattanooga, which was mounted like a Tommy gun on wheels, so that it could be rolled down alongside the waiting patient. According to the Vibrator Instrument Company catalogue, this model cost $200 and was so heavy that it had to be freighted. Another popular model was the Carpenter, which hung from the ceiling and looked rather like a car mechanic's impact wrench.

More than a dozen manufacturers had got into the business by the 1920s, including Hamilton Beach and General Electric, placing their advertisements in women's magazines. Then, suddenly, the tool seems to have disappeared. Why? "No one knows," says Maines. But her hypothesis is that it had something to do with vibrators showing up in porn films during the sexual revolution of the 1920s. Maines suggests that, in effect, these films blew the vibrator's cover, making its sexual purpose obvious.

"In one called The Widow's Delight," she says, "a woman comes home from her date, chastely pushes him away from the door and then rushes into her bedroom, rips off her clothes and pulls out her vibrator."

Though the vibrator seemed to vanish from the classified columns of respectable magazines, it didn't completely disappear. Vibrating "spot reducers'" and "massage pillows" were advertised in some publications, accompanied by illustrations of women applying the machines to their abdomens. Almost half a century later, during the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, women began to talk about the same thing doctors had been noting for the past 4,000 years - orgasms weren't easily achieved through penetrative sex. At this point the vibrator began to be marketed as a sexual device.

Since the 1970s, the hard round head of the vibrator has metamorphosed into phallus-shaped dolphins and other animals. The computer chip made possible tiny but powerful machines such as the Cybervibe, a two-inch phallus controlled by a 10-speed push-button remote control. And breakthroughs in materials have made possible the use of silicon, which retains body heat, and a life-like material called Cyberskin. A few years ago Candida Royalle, a former art student, porn star and producer of feminist porn films, began manufacturing vibrators based on the female rather than the male genitalia. "To have a phallus-shape for the clitoris is silly," says Royalle. Her models include the Petite, which is about four inches long and looks like a peach-coloured, slightly curved mobile phone; the Superbe, a slightly larger chartreuse model; and the Magnifique, a seven-and-a- half-inch version.

The feminist sex shop Good Vibrations, in San Francisco, stocks about 160 different kinds of vibrator, of which phallic versions are still the most popular. One of its bestsellers is the Hitachi Magic Wand. Its packaging is strangely similar to that of appliances at the turn of the last century: the box shows a woman decorously applying the wand to her wrists and neck.

Main picture: Hamilton Beach vibrator, circa 1910; found by Rachel Maines in the Bakken Museum of Electricity.

Below, left to right: vibrating machines including Dr Macaura's mechanical massager, circa 1910, made by British Appliances Manufacturing Company, Leeds; roller vibrator, 1950s; metal battery vibrator, 1940s; eskimo vibrator, 1930s-1940s; Marvolator, 1940s; Redusaway, 1930s

Top: Rachel Maines, author of `The Technology of Orgasm'. Above: some of the ads in early 20th-century American women's magazines that drew her attention. Left: Candida Royalle and (below) one of the vibrators she has designed

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