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Sony Walkman

When company founder Masura Ibuka hankered for entertainment on boring flights, the result was the Walkman – but only after innovative headphones and genius marketing

Sony Walkman

The Walkman arrived out of the blue into a world that wasn’t looking for it and, initially at least, barely knew what to do with it
Passers-by were puzzled by a bizarre spectacle in Tokyo’s Yoyoguri Park on June 22, 1979. A large gathering of headphone-wearing journalists stood silently observing a group of teenagers hired for the event cycling, roller-skating and dancing on-cue to a pre-recorded presentation inaudible to the outside world.

Although the journalists were struck by the sound quality delivered through the tiny headsets they mostly remained unconvinced of the usefulness of the machine. Few realized that they had just witnessed the first public demonstration of the most significant advance in listening to music since the invention of the gramophone. The Walkman arrived out of the blue into a world that wasn’t looking for it and, initially at least, barely knew what to do with it.

Wartime friends Masura Ibuka and Akio Morita built what would become Sony almost literally from the rubble of war-ravaged Tokyo. Ibuka started a small company, grandly named the Tokyo Telecommunications Research Institute, repairing and converting war-damaged or decommissioned radios.
In 1946 Morita joined his friend and a few months later they re-formed as the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation. The name ‘Soni’ first appeared in 1950 on the young company’s magnetic recording tape, which accompanied its introduction of Japan’s first tape recorder. In 1955 the company launched the world’s first fully transistorised pocket radio and adopted ‘Sony’ as the brand name on its consumer products, eventually renaming the company in 1958.

In 1978 Ibuka asked his engineers if they could make him a small stereo playback machine to listen to on his boring transcontinental flights. The boffins modified one of the company’s ‘Pressman’ miniature cassette recorders and attached a set of full size headphones for the boss. He was impressed but it was the visionary marketing genius of Morita that gave the idea momentum. Convinced that there would be big demand for a playback-only machine amongst young people if they could get rid of the ‘giant’ headphones, he gave his team an almost impossible four months to get the idea to the market.  Fortunately Sony’s R&D department was already well advanced with a revolutionary lightweight headphone weighing only 50g. When headset met tape player the equation was complete.

Without doing any market research Morita committed to an initial batch of 30,000 units. Two months after the launch only 3000 had been sold and the company skeptics were beginning to feel vindicated. Sony ‘believers’ decided that the best way to convince prospective customers of the merits of their new machine was to get them to listen. Sets were sent to pop stars and celebrities and Sony employees were sent out into the streets, subways and shops where they encouraged passers-by to try on the  headphones. By the end of the following month all 30,000 had been sold and a tsunami of demand swept across the world. By the middle of the ’90s sales of personal stereo tape players reached 150 million units.

The ‘invention’ of the Walkman has become the stuff of legend and will, of course, always be associated with Sony, but frequently overlooked is the fact that a young German/Brazilian, Andreas Pavel, patented a speakerless personal tape machine, which he called the ‘Stereobelt’, two years before Sony introduced the Walkman. Grundig, ITT, Philips and Yamaha all turned down his invention, which must rank alongside not signing The Beetles as one of music history’s great missed opportunities. Pavel fought a 25-year, multi-million dollar legal battle with Sony for recognition and royalties. It was not until 2003 and after the death of Akio Morita that Sony finally agreed an out-of-court settlement.
In 1986 Sony launched the Discman. It was the beginning of the end for the Walkman, ironically in the same year in which ‘walkman’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary as the generic name for personal stereo devices.

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