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A short history of the vibrator

Written by: Bestvibe Published on July 21,2021

Vibrators are popular: over 52% of women in the US have used one, and many men use them too (1-3). But where did they come from?

You might have heard the story of how a doctor invented the vibrator as a treatment for hysteria. Sorry to kill your buzz, but that’s not quite how it happened. There’s a lot of myths and misinformation surrounding the history of vibrators in the West, starting with Cleopatra.

Did Cleopatra invent the vibrator? Not quite.

In her 1992 Encyclopedia of Unusual Sex Practices, Brenda Love claimed that Cleopatra (69-30 BC) used a gourd filled with bees to stimulate her genitals, similar to a vibrator (4). This idea has been repeated and reprinted in many popular histories of vibrators. Historian Helen King says that there’s no evidence that this actually happened. Love’s book does not cite any sources, and there are no ancient writings or archeological finds that mention Cleopatra’s supposed invention.

Many links have been made between vibrators and the diagnosis of “hysteria.” The term comes from the Greek hysterika, meaning uterus. During the 6th century BC, a Greek physician named Aretaeus theorized that the womb could move freely around a woman’s body, causing ill physical and mental health (5). Since then, “hysteria” has been used to describe a multitude of ailments, especially in women—from aggression, to fainting, to nymphomania, to farting (6).

1800s: “Manipulators,” “circulators” and the myth of medical masturbation

Jumping ahead a thousand years (and some) brings us to a popular idea in the history of vibrators: that they were invented by western doctors in the 19th century, and used to masturbate hysterical women.

In the 1800s, industrialization transformed many aspects of life, including medicine. English physician Joseph Mortimer Granville invented an electric vibrator in 1883, although similar machines like Dr. George Taylor’s steam-powered “Manipulator” table massager were already in use in France and the US.

If Granville sounds familiar, you probably know him as the sexy doctor from the 2011 film “Hysteria”. Unfortunately the movie—based on Rachel Maines 1998 book, “The Technology of Orgasm”—is somewhat inventive with the facts (7). Maines herself admits.

“People just loved my hypothesis and that’s all it is really, it’s a hypothesis, that women were treated with massage for this disease, hysteria… and that the vibrator was invented to treat this disease. Well, people just thought this was such a cool idea that people believe it, that it’s like a fact. And I’m like, ‘It’s a hypothesis! It’s a hypothesis!’”

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