Audio Archaeology: History of a Classic, The SONY Walkman

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It’s only a teeny exaggeration to say that the Original Sony Walkman might just be the precursor to all personal tech devices.


Today, on the blog, we’re throwing all the way back to 1978 to look at the circumstances of its conception, the weirdness it gave birth to and some 1978 first world problems that nearly stopped it from descending upon us the way it has.

ACT 0: The Non-Portable World


See, back in the 70s, Modern mobile technology wasn’t a thing. Everyone either just bought a television set, invested in a stereo or just camped out by the radio for serialised stories that sometimes buzzed out into oblivion when the radio waves went wonky.


The closest to a portable device was a pocket transmission radio with a speaker attached to it for you to share your music with the world. A world in which not everyone appreciated your taste in music. 

However, this was all about to change with two men, Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita, co-founders of a company you might have heard of, SONY.


ACT I: The Pickle

According to an account in Matt Alt’s book “Pure Innovation”, the two found themselves in a bit of a pickle in the summer of 1978. 


It happened when Sony’s founder Masaru Ibuka, strolled into his business partner Akio Morita’s office with one of Sony’s portable stereo tape recorders and a full sized pair of earphones. 


Morita asked him what on earth he was doing.


Picture this.

Ibuka's gadget of choice during the time was then, Sony's smallest tape deck, the TC-D5 field recorder, for industry professionals. It was as big as a breakfast cereal box and weighed some two kilograms sans battery. 

Credit: shizaudio

The headphones Ibuka had perched on his head, on the other hand were oversized clunky contraptions. Weighing about 400g on average. Ibuka probably didn't look especially elegant.

"Well" Ibuka explained, ”I like to listen to music but I don't want to disturb others, I can't sit there by my stereo all day, this is my solution."

It turned out that Ibuka also had the habit of handling the TC-D5 field recorder as a portable player on international flights. But it was undeniably heavy and hugely unwieldy

Morita, looking at the wildly clunky sight in front of him and thinking about the boomboxes he saw on a recent trip to New York,  put two-and-two together:

People wanted to take their music around, and Ibuka wanted to listen to his music in peace. The idea of a portable, personal cassette player was then born.

 

ACT 2: The Player

As with most electronic makers with bits, bobs and failed prototypes lying about are wont to do, SONY already had the perfect base for this product. The 1978 Sony Pressman TCM-100 a cassette recorder that could both record and playback sounds in mono.

The SONY Pressman TCM-100

For Ibuka and Morita’s vision to happen though, meant that every feature in the pressman that was inessential to music playback had to be axed. Including the recording feature and internal speaker.

This was disastrous internally. 

Sony’s staff were not happy. Who on earth would want a player without a recording feature and even worse no speaker playback? Who on earth would want to leave the house with a pair of clunky headphones on their heads?

And when the end product finally emerged. It was also peculiar-looking  Roughly the size of a paperback book, it was too large to fit into pockets and needed to instead be clipped to a belt or waistband.

Another oddity was that, Morita. after considering how isolating listening to music solo was, also specially included 2 earphone jacks for separate earphones. So you could listen with a friend.

The double jacks and the orange "hotline" button

It came with a mute button for the music, named the hotline, which you could push when you wanted to have a conversation with your listening partner.

It was novel, to say the least, maybe even a bit too novel.

No one was willing to sign off on the gadget. Ibuka and Morita also didn't make any efforts to push it through and it looked as if the new prototype was set to fade into obscurity in SONY’s storeroom.

Finally galvanised into action, Morita eventually ordered a focus group of students: five prototypes were loaded with recent hits and put through the wringer at the hands of a 100 testers. He found two things, that the new machines were intuitive to operate and that the students quickly got lost in the music.

Now slightly more encouraged, they settled on a production number based on the number of students in Japan. Morita thought that the Walkman could sell about 60,0000 before its novelty faded. He aimed to launch the machine just before the summer vacation to capitalise on the student audience.

This unfortunately left what would become the SONY Walkman with 3 months for production and a host of issues and limitations. Which SONY tackled by further cutting the first production to just 30,000.

For context that was a tiny number Sony's Trinitron TVs were going through annual production runs of millions.

Yet another testament to the team’s reluctance.


ACT 3: The Phones

Now that the player had been sorted, that left SONY with the issue of headphones. 


After all, in 1978 headphones weren't all that big, I mean, they were /big/ but not popular. Yes, pilots and telegram operators had to wear them in their jobs but that’s because it was their job.

Credit: BBC, Getty Images

They were massive, hot and noone would wear them of their own free will. The exception were a small group of hardcore audio maniacs, hardly trendsetters in society.

The Walkman might be portable, but it needed to be paired with some equally portable headphones


They eventually created the MDR 3L2 which met their objectives, a stripped-down pair of earphones that sat on top of the listener’s ears rather than swallowing them whole. They were cheaper and simpler to produce and weighed just 50 grams, down from the 400g headphones weighed in the past. 

This move was what finally took the Walkman from dream to reality. 


ACT 4: The PR


The product was called the Walkman TPS-L2 in Japan.. An intuitive name that told the customers exactly what it was. 


The eventual July 1979 Gala Press event at yoyogi park generated 0 headlines and their mildly terrifying advertising campaign didn't generate exceptional interest. It's difficult to describe using words so you'll just have to see it here instead. 


But, many people did start buying the new Walkmans, something the newspapers picked up on .

Morita’s idea became a massive success. With the Walkman’s first run of 30,000 snapped up within 3 months.

The Walkman finally flew


ACT 5 The Legacy. (I’ve Ran out of “P” Words)

Sony eventually sold 400 Million units across their Walkman lineup. Only finally retiring its cassette players in 2010 and eventually, the Walkman name as the world knew it. 

But we know better. 

Sony’s Walkman served as an important precursor for personal music players and our beloved DAPs, of which SONY’s WM1A and WM1Z are two popular choices. With the WM in their model names standing for none other than the once ubiquitous Walkman. 

The WM1A and WM1Z


On a related note. The pair of earphones that came out with the Walkman were groundbreaking during their time. 

Sony designer Yasuo Kuroki asked when he first listened to the MDR 3L2. 

“How on earth was something this small putting out such powerful sound?” 

That’s a question that earphone and headphone manufacturers still explore to this very day.

Last but not least, The two earphone jacks on the walkman were the first instances of the now ubiquitous 3.5mm earphone jack on the market.

What was so special about them that they eventually took flight? Becoming a well-loved output format for 40 years and counting? That probably had a lot to do with the fact that Sony made this design license free. They gave the drawings to anyone who wanted to use it. Leading to it to spread around the world and endure till this day. The 4.4mm balanced output jack we’re seeing today is, also, a SONY invention. 

Conclusion

A search on the net today will yield a couple of different stories regarding the conception of the Walkman.

Some involve Akio Morita laying his job on the line. Some involve Masaru Ibuka contemplating his inability to listen to music on the go while stuck on a business flight.

All of these could be true. 

But, beyond sifting out the truth of a piece of history made years ago, the proliferation of stories on the internet tells us that the invention of the SONY has become modern folklore.

And that the wave of inventions it made possible, from earphones to music streaming, are here to stay.

The following is an edited transcription of the P/P TV's Audio Archaeology video on the 1979 SONY Walkman. Watch the video below! 

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