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Monday, July 06, 2009

Wired for Sound: The Walkman Turns 30

It's hard to believe, but the Walkman has been with us for 30 years. Here's my article from the Daily Express on the invention that revolutionised the way we listen to music, while above you can watch Cliff getting into the new technology in the early 1980s. (Video by wehavejoy)

FOR today’s iPod-generation the ability to listen to music while on the move is taken for granted. The sight of people walking, jogging, sitting on trains or buses with headphones on has become commonplace. But in 1979 it was something very new. The launch of the Sony Walkman, the world’s first portable personal cassette player to go on sale to the public exactly 30 years ago this week, not only revolutionised the way we listen to music but what we do in public spaces.

"This is the product that will satisfy those young people who want to listen to music all day. They’ll take it everywhere with them. It’ll be a hit,” predicted Sony’s chairman Akio Morita shortly before the launch. How right he was.

Within two years of its first appearance in Japan more than 1.5million units had been sold worldwide, in its first 10 years 50million were sold.

The Walkman was devised on the instructions of the Sony chairman who wanted a portable machine that would enable him to listen to opera while he was on transatlantic plane trips. Its forerunner was the “Pressman”, a miniature tape recorder for journalists, which was adapted into a stereo tape player by Sony engineer Kozo Ohsone. The idea of adding the headphones came from the company’s honorary chairman Masura Ibuka.

At the press launch of the invention journalists were escorted on to a bus and each given a Walkman. They were driven off to Yoyogi, a major park in Tokyo, and after disembarking were told to put on the headphones and push the play button. Sony also hired young people to walk along Tokyo’s busiest streets, offering their headphones to passers-by to listen to the high-quality stereo sound.

At the end of 1979 Sony introduced their product in the US as the “Soundabout” and in February 1980 it made its debut here as the “Stowaway”. But tourists who had bought the machines in Japan brought the original name with them so Sony decided to use the Walkman brand name worldwide. In Britain the machine was an overnight success with more than 100,000 sold in the first year. So quickly did the craze catch on that in 1986 the word Walkman appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time.

But the invention was not to every­one’s taste. “For those of us who liked getting on a bus or a train and overhearing or even taking part in conversations, there is something a bit bleak about the dozens of private solitudes which nowadays clamber aboard,” wrote critic A N Wilson, who has suggested that the Walkman, with its “infuriating tsst tsst, tsst, tsst noise”, may be “one of the biggest blights of urban life”.

In 1984 the CD Walkman, or Discman, was introduced. Five years later the video Walkman was launched followed by the Minidisc Walkman in 1992.

But it was not all plain sailing for Sony. The company faced a legal challenge from the German-Brazilian inventor Andreas Pavel, who had invented the first portable personal stereo tape player in 1972. Pavel’s machine never went into production – the companies he approached did not believe in his “Stereobelt” – but by 1978 he had patented the device in several countries. After years of court battles Sony signed a deal with Pavel in 2004, reportedly agreeing to pay him more than $10million and royalties from the sales of several Walkman models.

Although the Walkman has been challenged in recent years by iPods and mobile phones which also play music the brand name is still going strong. To mark the 30th anniversary Sony launched the X-series Walkman, which has a touch-screen, 60 hours’ worth of music and a radio.

Perhaps the reason why the Walkman has been so successful is that its 1979 launch coincided with the advent of Thatcherism. We were moving away from the collective, towards the individual. Up to the late Seventies our pleasures were mainly shared: we all watched the same TV, went on the same sort of holidays. From the Eighties leisure became tailored to the individual.

The Walkman, which enabled you to listen to the music you wanted wherever and whenever you wanted, was in tune with the new individualistic spirit of the times – the perfect accessory for the “Me” generation. Today it’s hard to imagine a world where we can’t take our music with us wherever we go.

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