Flashback 1979: Sony’s Iconic Walkman Is Born

Walkman photo courtesy of Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Forty years ago today Sony introduced a portable cassette player that would forever change the way the world experienced music on-the-go. That player, of course, is the iconic Walkman. It wasn’t the first portable audio device: the low-fi transistor radio had a similar form factor and helped spread rock n’ roll in the 1950s but it was a low-fi AM radio. The Walkman ushered in the era of high-fidelity “personal audio,” setting the stage for the iPod revolution that would put “1,000 songs in your pocket” 22 years later (a few years after the first MP3 player pointed the way forward.)

Although bulky by today’s standards, the original Walkman TPS-L2 was a mind-blowing revelation in its day, allowing people to enjoy high-quality stereo music through lightweight headphones connected to a player you could put in a (large) pocket or clip to your belt. The concept of walking around listening to high-fidelity music was novel and quickly embraced as not only socially acceptable but hip. The Walkman was also special because it played your music: mix tapes containing songs you picked and painstakingly transferred from vinyl. The aural and social isolation it created made the Walkman a symbol of the self-indulgent Me Generation of the 1980s.

How it All Began
Walkman certainly showed up at the right time for Sony. By the end of the 1970s, the company was smarting. While still the world’s premier TV maker, its Beta video cassette format had already embarrassingly lost its battle with VHS. There were some potential new hits in the pipeline — Sony was engrossed in co-development of the compact disc with Philips and developing a new smaller 8mm videotape camcorder format. But the company needed something immediately to not only boost profits, but its market standing, reputation as an innovator, and mojo.

Walkman originated from a unique request. In February 1979, company co-founder Masaru Ibuka told Sony audio division president Norio Ohga that he’d be flying to the U.S. the following month and asked if it would be possible to cobble together a portable player so he could listen to stereo recordings on the flight. Ibuka had been using a portable tape player Sony had unveiled a year earlier, the TC-D5. But at $1,000, the TC-D5 was designed more for professional recording rather than listening and was too heavy and bulky.

Ohga, in the hospital with a broken back due to a recent helicopter crash, relayed Ibuka’s request to Kozo Ohsone, general manager of Sony’s audio tape recording division. In just four days, Ohsone and his team of engineers removed the speaker and the recording assembly from one of the company’s Pressman piano key-style mono home cassette recorders, installing stereo circuitry and amplification in their place. To the surprise of Ohga and his engineers, the stereo sound the jury-rigged unit produced in headphones was great.

Ibuka was thrilled. When he returned home from his trip, he showed the makeshift player to Sony’s other co-founder and company chairman, Akio Morita. Enchanted, Morita borrowed the player for the weekend, showing it off to his golf buddies and family, everyone expressing equal enchantment and surprise at how good the stereo sound was.

Morita’s Folly
Buoyed by the results of his abbreviated weekend focus group study, Morita wanted to turn the player into an actual product. Other Sony executives outwardly were politely acquiescent to their boss, but remained privately skeptical. Why would anyone want a cassette deck that couldn’t record? But Morita was convinced kids, already toting portable radios and boomboxes, would love something light and cheap.

Complicating matters was Morita’s proposed schedule. Considering the buying habits of the youth market, Morita wanted product ready to ship by the end of the school year on June 21, when kids would be heading out for summer fun.

With such a ridiculously short window, Ohsone cobbled together a prototype from available Sony tape gear, rather than start product development from scratch. But Morita asked for three features not found on other Sony cassette decks: twin headphone jacks so two people could listen simultaneously; a “fader” button to lower music volume so the listener could conduct conversations; and smaller, lighter headphones. Morita also wanted kids to be able to afford it, so it had to be less than $200, or half the price of Sony’s cheapest mono Pressman.

At that price, Morita was told Sony would have to sell 30,000 units for the new product to make any economic sense. However, no Sony tape deck had ever sold more than 15,000 units. Morita now had to overcome more vocal objections, finally announcing in frustration that he’d resign if the company failed to sell them out.

But first the new product needed a name. Given that the company already had a tape deck called Pressman, and the new player was designed to be used while walking around, Ohsone suggested “Walkman.” While fellow executives weren’t thrilled, no one came up with anything better and the name stuck — at least in Japan.

The first Walkman — officially model TPS-L2, along with headphones weighing a mere 1.4 ounces — went on sale for $125 in Japan on July 1, 1979.

Morita’s confidence was soon rewarded — the first 30,000 units sold out by September. Production doubled then tripled to keep up with overwhelming demand. Walkman’s popularity in Japan actually stalled its introduction in the U.S. and Europe. When it finally showed up in America in June 1980, however, Sony’s wariness about its name meant that Walkman was initially dubbed the “Sound-About.” But with newsworthy sales success in Japan and ravenous customer anticipation in the rest of the world, everyone referred to it as Walkman and the name finally was adopted for all markets.

Over the next decade, Sony sold 50 million Walkmans (Walkmen?). Not surprisingly, dozens of other bandwagon-jumping companies sold their own personal stereo cassette players, which everyone also called “Walkman,” much to Sony’s dismay.

Walkman and its ilk completely altered how we commuted, exercised, and tolerated long plane flights. Walkman also boosted the cassette, which overcame vinyl as the primary prerecorded music format in 1983. While eventually usurped by CD and, finally, digital music, the Walkman remains one of the most iconic devices in consumer electronics history.

Electroliner's picture

My Sound About was a Graduation Gift. Unfortunately, the head phones wore out after a couple of years. I bought a Sony 12V car adapter so I wouldn't wear out batteries while traveling. I later bought a DBX PPA-1 for my DBX cassettes.

Currently, Its a nice paperweight in my den. Hard to believe its been 40yrs.....

John Sully's picture

I promptly modified the headphones by removing the headband and putting the speakers in foam inserts I made to fit my crash helmet. It worked like a champ for listening to music while I was out on long rides on the highway. Brilliant little piece of kit.

SkywaveTDR's picture

I continue to get Walkman model WM-D6C decks in all the time for repair and those little springs and washers are no easy task to deal with. I had up to 25 of them in at one time but I think the numbers are going down lately. I could have a burst of incoming units though as the hot weather over here seems to have more decks coming in.

Bosshog7_2000's picture

I have a yellow, Walkman Sport from 1985 when i was 13 yrs old. It was yellow with matching yellow 'in ear' headphones. It was an awesome little deck but ate through batteries like crazy.