The Story of the First Massage Chair

The first massage chair was a box

My love affair with chair massage began in 1982, four years before the first professional massage chair came on the market. This is the story of what it took to get that first massage chair built.

The problem
The team I had assembled to begin providing seated massage in the workplace and at events were all graduates of the massage school I owned, The Amma Institute. One of the first questions we confronted was how to comfortably seat our customers for the massage.

Regular chairs had backs that limited the massage to the shoulders on up and we had already decided that our acupressure massage needed to include the “bladder channel” points traditional Chinese medicine that are located alongside the spine and run all the way down to the hips.

We tried turning chairs around and having the customer straddle the seat. That worked for some people on some chairs, but didn’t work at all for people in skirts or on chairs with arm supports. Then there was the fact that most office chairs had wheels.

To deal with all these considerations, I realized that we would always have to provide our own chairs for our customers.

Drummer's Stool

One of the first massage “chairs” was a drummer’s stool

Solution #1: Evolution
At that point in time, the best chair turned out to be a stool–no backs, no arm rests and relatively portable. We ruled out any stool with a hard seat (too uncomfortable) and looked for stools that folded and had good padding. Camp stools with canvas seats almost made the cut, but proved to be too uncomfortably low for most customers and practitioners.

We finally settled on a stool used by professional drummers. They had thick cushions, height adjustable seats and three sturdy metal legs that conveniently collapsed for portability. While they were expensive, $80-100, they added a very professional look to our enterprise.

Stool massage with no support

Stool massage with no support

Unfortunately, there were two problems with massaging on stools. Since we were providing Japanese acupressure, in order to apply pressure to points on one part of the body, the opposite side had to be braced. Not so much of a problem on the top of the shoulders and arms, but working on backs required some tricky coordination.

Consequently, part of the protocol involved making certain that the feet of the customers were in front of their knees and their hands were on their legs.The other issue was that the further we got into each massage, the more the customer relaxed and started listing forward, or backward, or to one side or the other. Either they had to hold themselves up or the practitioner did. The situation begged for another way.

Balans Chair

One design inspiration for the first massage chair

Solution #2: Revolution
Back in 1979 the first “kneeling” chair was developed in 1979 by Norwegian Peter Opsvik. Called the Balans chair, they hit U.S. shores in the early 1980’s. I loved the concept.

When I started seriously working on the first massage chair, I knew that the kneeling angle would be incorporated into the design.

In 1984, I crossed paths with a young French cabinet maker, Serge Bouyssou. The first time we met I explained the concept of seated massage and told him my specifications. “I want a chair with a Balans-style base that also supports the customer leaning forward into an angled chest and face support with a place to rest the arms. Oh, and by the way,” I said, “it has to be portable.”

Early Prototype of the chair. Notice the slot in the chest rest for the face.

Early Prototype of the chair. Notice the slot in the chest rest for the face.

Serge took this all in for a moment and then said, “Oh. You want a box.” “No, no,” I replied, “I want a chair.” More firmly he insisted, “No. You want a box.” Then he went to the whiteboard and proceeded to draw out how a chair could be built using a box as a base and with detachable supports–which could be stored inside the base–for the rest of the body. “You’re right,” I finally agreed, “I want a box.”

It took three prototypes to get to a version of the chair that a person could actually sit in. At that point I felt confident enough to show it to Jim Everett, the owner of Living Earth Crafts, an early manufacturer of massage tables in Santa Rosa, California. Over the next two years Serge and I worked with Jim to develop a series of pre-production models that kept refining the original idea.

Finally, in May, 1986, the first High Touch Massage Chair emerged from the Living Earth Crafts workshop and the face of an industry was born. Later that year, I showed off the chair for the first time to a group of 38 massage school owners and offered to come to their schools and teach their students how to use it. In the next 16 months I taught chair massage classes in 24 schools throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe. By 1990, all of the largest, and many of the smaller, table manufacturers had their own version of the massage chair and close to 100 massage schools were offering chair massage courses.

Jim Everett and David Palmer tinkering with the chair

Jim Everett and David tinkering with the chair

Living Earth Crafts retired the original chair in the mid-1990’s as more lightweight designs with tilting face cradles emerged. I joined forces with another company, Stronglite, and co-developed the chair I now work with – the Ergo Pro.

Jim Everett has passed away but I am forever grateful that he and Serge had the patience, foresight and courage to embrace an idea for which there was no discernible market and to invest their time and money to make it a reality. There is no doubt that all three of our names belong on the first patent for a portable, knock-down massage chair # 4,746,167, which you can read here . You can also view the original images included with the patent.

If you have any stories about the original chair or the early days of chair massage, please leave them below or send them directly to me.

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25 Responses to The Story of the First Massage Chair

  1. rika rich says:

    I never knew!!! /The first chair was quite a challenge also.
    P.S. You were a pretty cool looking guy even then.

  2. Thank you, David. Thank you. Coincidentally, I finally read Joan Holman’s book about Sister Rosalind Gefre recently, and I was dumbstruck being forced to realize that while your name is not mentioned, the book clearly states on page 17 (paperback), “The development of the massage chair in 1986 allowed massage to move out into the mainstream…”. There is a picture of Sister Rosalind doing chair massage on the back cover. I’ve had the good fortune to have you over to my house to talk about massage, and somehow as well I’ve also spoken with Sister Rosalind over the phone about massage. I hate to wonder, but was your name ignored intentionally? Please forgive me for my fantasies, but I would love to see Sister Rosalind & you have an open hour-plus long conversation about massage on stage, in maybe San Francisco, or what about Tokyo?/!… That’s a conference I would go to for sure! I really should take a workshop from you…You’ve changed the world in so many ways, David!

  3. Mary Cheers says:

    Although I knew this story before, I loved hearing(reading) it again.

  4. Rhonda S. Broadnax says:

    David: I am Rhonda Broadnax,RN, graduate of Atlanta School of Massage, Class of 1991. I took your course in the Spring of 1992 at ASM and bought one of the “BOXES”. In order to be certified, I had to complete 100 chair massages with signature for proof. I worked as the RN [nurse}and for the Brevard Music Center that summer and for 17 more summers consecqutively. The campus consisted of music students, instrumentalists, piano,as well as singers in an opera program. There was faculty for these as well as support personel { painters, carpenters, scenic artist, stage crew, ground keepers, seamtresses,sound tech, all that goes into producing a full summer music program. These people were all in need of wonderful. chair massages and ver appreciative of the free availabilityof such on campus. It did not take long for me to have all 100 to for my qualifying number. I still use the “BOX” after 20 years, in my office as well as on site. I’ve never bought another one. I’ve found this to be quite adequate (don’t have all those adjustments to make). I incorporate the chair ( the first 15 minutes) of every massage,( 15, 30, 60 ). I am 70 years and still find the chair massage very therapeutic for people of all ages and a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to help.
    Thank you David for your expertise and your ability to teach others how to use their abilities. It has been a pleasure, and continues to be so.
    .
    Rhonda S. Broadnax,RN specializing in soft tissue mobilization Nurse Massage Therapist
    PO Box 35 Danielsville, GA 30633 706-795-3803

  5. Irene Smith says:

    Your commitment to this field is a blessing; your integrity in the field is a model, and your knowledge can not be duplicated. Those of us who know your contribution to massage are deeply grateful for your leadership and your presence.

    Love your photos!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! love the white linen suit!

    Blessings and Gratitude

    Irene Smith

  6. Rose Cassens says:

    David,

    Enjoyed reading your “Story of the First Massage Chair”. It was a good diversion for me when I took the full massage class with Jack in 1983. Although I’ve forgotten the exact full massage process, I remember enough of it to give a good massage to any of my friends or relatives who wants one from me. I am glad we have kept in touch. I can’t believe that it’s been more than 25 years. Glad to see that you have pursued your vision.

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  8. I bought chair #3 from Living Earth Crafts back in 1986 and introduced it to Florida massage therapists at the FSMTA Convention. A few years later they exchanged it for a newer version that I still use from time to time.

    • David says:

      You were definitely the pioneer of chair massage in Florida, Alex. I have many fond memories of teaching in Florida and of one particular conference held in Key West where I spoke at the traditional Saturday night banquet outside on the beach in the moonlight. You folks really knew how to throw a party!

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  10. Joy Fang says:

    You have done a fantastic invention by the stronglite massage chair development. It works very well for the masseur and my clients are very happy with this personally adjustable massage chair. If I look at other masseurs their chairs, I am still happy with the “emperor” in massage chairs. Regards, Joy Fang, from the Netherlands

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  15. ann says:

    well its 2014 and I just bought one for $25 the original 1986 model in perfect shapewhat’s it worth it now is there a market anybody want an old one

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  18. Samuel Fixico says:

    I actually had the pleasure of using one of the first models you created and to be honest, I found it quite comfortable!!!

  19. At first I thought this article was about massage chairs, but it is about chair massage chairs! I was going to say, I thought Inada was one of the first massage chair companies, founded back in 1962. You learn something every day. Thanks.

  20. Carlin Holden says:

    I remember the “tricky coordination” required to press on back points while holding the recipient upright. I only made one trip to Apple with the drummer stool but the memory is strong. Congratulations on what you envisioned and manifested with your early partners. What a gift you have given to so many with the enhanced availability of massage.

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