With so many people walking around immersed in their smartphones or lost in an auditory world of their own via a pair of earbuds, it’s hard to remember (or imagine, depending on your age) a time when nothing like that existed. It wasn’t until about 1980 when it became possible for the average person to carry a device with them in public that they could use as a private form of entertainment. The first device to make that possible was the Walkman.
History of the Walkman
The co-founders of Sony, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, were the inventors of the Walkman. Sony originally introduced the device as the Sound-About in the United States and the Stowaway in the United Kingdom. Eventually, they decided on calling it Walkman, a play on the name of a small Sony tape recorder called the Pressman.
It used to be that manufacturers marketed small cassette recorders and players to journalists, which is evident in the name of the Pressman. But then, in what became a turning point in the history of music players, Sony realized the potential of marketing a portable cassette player to ordinary consumers. They removed the record function from the Pressman to make the device smaller and set out to reach music lovers of the world with a new product.
The Walkman’s Rapturous Success
Sony was skeptical that their new offering would be a success; they doubted that anyone would want a tape player that didn’t also record. There was also a perception that people wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing headphones in public; it just wasn’t done at the time.
The Walkman made its debut in Japan on July 1, 1979, priced at about $150, and experienced explosive success right away. Sony sold more than 50,000 units in two months, far surpassing their expectation of 5,000 units a month. The original model was the Sony Walkman TPS L2. The portable cassette player was blue and silver, weighed 14 ounces and came with a leather carrying case. It also featured two headphone jacks so two people could listen at the same time. It ran on two AA batteries and didn’t have an external speaker. Sony went on to sell nearly 400 million of them in its various forms.
The Walkman’s Influence
With the Walkman’s huge success, brands like Aiwa, Panasonic and Toshiba entered the portable cassette player market, and by 1983, cassette tapes started to outsell vinyl records. The Walkman helped power the fitness craze of the 80s. It’s believed that the significant increase in the number of people who reported walking outdoors for exercise was due to the availability of Walkman cassette players.
Sony and other makers continually developed their personal listening devices, adding AM/FM receivers and putting out products that ran on solar power or were water-resistant. When compact discs arrived in 1982, Sony adapted and created portable CD players under the name of Discman. The company later went on to sell MiniDisc players and Walkman-branded MP3 players, phones and more.
While other brands may have surpassed the technology of Sony’s Walkman, the original Walkman is still revered as the ancestor of our current listening devices. As the first personal portable music player, it revolutionized the way we listen to music. And who knows? Vinyl has made a comeback, and some (perhaps overly optimistically) predict it might be the cassette tape’s turn next. Someday soon, you might be strutting down the street with a Walkman cassette player clipped to your belt. In any case, the Walkman lives on.