It is the prevailing notion that cochlear outer hair cells function as mechanical effectors as well as sensory receptors. Electrically induced changes in the shape of mammalian outer hair cells, studied in vitro, are commonly assumed to represent an aspect of their effector process that may occur in vivo. The nature of the motile process is obscure, even though none of the established cellular motors can be involved. Although it is known that the motile response is under voltage control, it is uncertain whether the stimulus is a drop in the voltage along the long axis of the cell or variation in the transmembrane potential. We have now performed experiments with cells partitioned in differing degrees between two chambers. Applied voltage stimulates the cell membrane segments in opposite polarity to an amount dependent on the partitioning. The findings show, in accordance with previous suggestions, that the driving stimulus is a local transmembrane voltage drop and that the cellular motor consists of many independent elements, distributed along the cell membrane and its associated cortical structures. We further show that the primary action of the motor elements is along the longitudinal dimension of the cell without necessarily involving changes in intracellular hydrostatic pressure. This establishes the outer hair cell motor as unique among mechanisms that control cell shape.