Sony Walkman blueprint graphic

Classic Projects - Sony Walkman

Sony's late 1970s miniature cassette player ushered in the era of 'music to go'.

When the first Sony Walkman emerged in the late 1970s it revolutionised the way we listen to music. But it wasn't a breakthrough design and was little more than a customised executive toy. Bored with endless international flights, Sony co-chairman Akio Morita wanted to listen to opera while airborne. In 1978 one of the company's audio engineers Nobutoshi Kihara built a prototype version by modifying the company's Pressman tape recorder. He removed the record function and introduced a stereo amplifier. And so the first portable stereo audio cassette player had arrived. Except it wasn't the first.

That honour went to the 'Stereobelt' designed by Andreas Pavel in 1972. On the appearance of the Walkman in Japan in 1979, there started a lengthy legal battle between the multinational and Pavel, who claimed that his copyright had been infringed. By the mid-2000s Pavel had received a settlement for somewhere in the region of US$10m. But not until Sony had reaped the profits of international sales of 220 million units.

In fact, Pavel couldn't really claim to have invented the portable cassette player. They'd been around for years, with mono micro-cassette recording devices having been in the hands of journalists since the 1960s, while the portable radio goes back to the miniaturisation heralded by the introduction of the transistor. But the Walkman is a key point on the timeline because that was when record companies started to support the cassette format. As a 'play only' device, the record companies saw the Walkman as a weapon to assist them in the war against home taping, which they famously claimed was 'killing music'.

At the end of a decade where trends in consumer audio playback devices had been towards the monolithic, smaller, lighter 'music to go' was a game changer. The public loved it, and as the result of an iconic marketing campaign, the Walkman became a symbol of cultural freedom, mobility and the individual. And while the manufacturer disliked the name Walkman, in the absence of anything better it stuck. They may be glad that it didcompetitor models included Toshiba's Walky, Panasonic's MiJockey and Aiwa's excruciating CassetteBoy.

The big problem for Sony was that creating a cassette player you could put in your pocket was only half the battle and Morita was worried that the new product would not appeal to the young because of the bulky design of the day's headphones that were not made with 'easy listening' in mind. But in another division of Sony, development was underway on a new generation of lightweight headphones that instead of enclosing the ear rested on foam pads. These were only a tenth of the weight of their studio equivalent. And while early models were prone to antisocial leakage, this could not deter Sony who realised that it was the combination of headphones and player that held the key.

Costing two weeks wages, the Walkman was not cheap. But for early adopters it was the iPod of their generation and as the 1980s rolled in there were more models, more manufacturers, the unit cost came down and the youth of the day looked forward to a future where the Walkman brand would bring CD, video, MiniDisc and MP3 to their world.

But the Walkman also has a cultural legacy of a more questionable kind. Sony's personal stereo was a main player in the restoration of Cliff Richard's career. In the video to his 1981 hit 'Wired for Sound' the bachelor-boy is seen listening to his lightweight headphones while roller-skating through Milton Keynes.

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