Before MP3 players were introduced in 1998, many people believed that the Sony Walkman would be the staple music player forever and that any other technology in the market would never replace it. With more than 100 million Walkman players sold around the world, the gadget became so iconic in pop culture that in 1986, the Oxford English Dictionary had to add the unique word “Walkman” as a noun to describe the gadget itself.
In spite of taking the music industry by storm, the MP3 player soon took over as the most popular music player, mainly due to the fact that MP3 players allow you to play all the songs that you put in its memory without bringing large cassette tapes or CDs with you wherever you go. Sony, however, had invented the Walkman in 1979 by chance or frankly by accident. However, no one can deny that the Sony Walkman player brought a significant impact in the industry, as it allowed other advanced music players to be invented in the 90s up to that late 2000s.
The Accidental Invention of the Walkman
Sony never really intended to launch a project to invent the Walkman. As a matter of fact, the Walkman was created as a result of two separate projects that were combined to form one portable gadget that can play cassette tapes while allowing the user to listen to its contents using a pair of headphones.
The cassette tape was invented in 1963 by Philips, a Dutch electronics company. This compact tape is supposed to enable people to listen to prerecorded music in car stereos, as playing vinyl, which was the popular format for listening to music back then, is proven to be unwieldy because it would often jump tracks or songs when the car is on uneven terrain, and it may even get damaged in the process. As an alternative to vinyl players, car companies started installing cassette players on their production vehicles in the 1960s since it is cheaper, and it is more practical.
In order to capitalize on the popularity of cassette tapes, Sony tasked its product developers to design portable cassette tape players. One of the first cassette players that Sony released is the TC-D5, a bulky gadget that looks too big to carry. The TC-D5 was used by Masaru Ibuka, the co-founder of Sony, during his business trips, and what he realized while bringing it is that Sony hasn’t created a compact and easy-to-carry player that will give their company an edge against their competitors. Ibuka then assigned Norio Ohga, the executive deputy president at Sony, to design with his team a much smaller player than the TC-D5.On the other hand, another project was ongoing, while the other developers were busy designing music players. This project is focused on creating a pair of headphones that are lighter than 50 grams.
When the chairman of Sony, Akio Morita, received the project reports of both teams, he suggested that the developers should check of both of their designs are compatible with each other. Morita hoped that the stereo cassette player and the headphones are compatible so that the fusion would help the company release a new and innovative product in the market. Fortunately, the two inventions did end up being perfectly compatible, and the result was the Sony Walkman.
The blue and silver Walkman TPS-L2 released in Japan on July 1, 1979, and the price for it was 33,000 yen (about $150 back then), which is approximately $500 when you adjust it to the inflation today. Sony only saw the Walkman sell 5,000 units per month, but surprisingly, the gadget sold for more than 50,000 units in just two months after its release. Because of the Walkman’s success in Japan, Sony then launched the player in the US and the UK, although it was called Soundabout in the European country.
Sony continues to sell their Walkman until today, but their Japan factory that manufactures the player since the 80s have closed since October 23, 2010. Despite losing worldwide popularity, Sony Walkman players that are made in China still sell reasonably well in the US, and the brand’s cult following today is mainly driven by nostalgia and the hipster culture.