SOON AFTER its 1979 launch, Sony’s Walkman was already seen as much more than a trendy audio player. Crucially, it became an escape hatch.
Whenever I cradled my Walkman as a kid, it transported me to new worlds. It made five-hour cross-country flights bearable and took the sting of loneliness out of the once ultimate injustice of strolling somewhere unaccompanied by music. While my brother and I could agree on blasting Green Day’s “Dookie” from a bright yellow boombox when poolside in Miami, our Walkmans allowed us to find our own independent grooves. He listened to Tupac, I enjoyed the jazzy flow of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Phony Rappers” on repeat until I memorized every rhyme. I was lost inside my head, somewhere deeply peaceful and far, far away from wherever my body happened to be.
Facts and Figures
How Sony’s ubiquitous cassette player made its mark on the world.
2.5 hours: The original Walkman’s estimated battery life. Enough AA juice to enjoy Prince’s “1999” album twice through.
$199: U.S. price of the original Walkman. Or roughly $1,347 today—close to what one now costs on eBay.
$3,198: Price of the most expensive Walkman, the Signature Series 256GB NW-WM1Z MP3 player, which also weighs more than a pound.
300+: Number of various models and devices Sony has released under its “Walkman” label.
400 million: Number of Walkman devices, from tape decks to MP3 players, that Sony has sold world-wide.
It’s become easy since then to take that simple but potent pleasure for granted. We’re all—or most of us, anyway—locked inside whatever beat or podcast is snaking through our earbuds today, distracting us from our morning commute or our struggle on the gym treadmill.
But the idea was once revolutionary, even shocking. The Walkman, dreamed up by Sony bigwigs who wanted to entertain themselves with classical music while jetting across the globe, was anything but a guaranteed hit when it debuted. People were fine communally humming along to tinny transistor radios or parking in an easy chair while listening to vinyl.
But as Sony’s stocky cassette deck turns 40 this year, its influence is clear. The Walkman not only presaged Apple’s iPhone; it spurred innovative audio technologies like the Minidisc and downloadable MP3s, helped popularize self-reflexive styles of pop music (see: anything once labeled “alternative”) and dovetailed with a 30% increase in walking as exercise—arguably making us more fit. For all that and more, the Walkman deserves to be honored.
Turn On, Tune Out
SONY’S WALKMAN is basically an antique curio now, the ca-chunk of its worn buttons loudly unspooling magnetic tape that’s somehow encoded with Top-40 hits. But the primitive player was once transformative, helping music nerds shut out the world as each played curator to a personal soundtrack.
“Why does the Walkman matter? Content control. It individualized entertainment,” said David Hajdu, music critic at The Nation and a professor at Columbia University. “That was extraordinary.”
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Mr. Hajdu wasn’t as enthusiastic when he attended the release of the Walkman in 1979—at the time still cautiously marketed as the Soundabout. “I just saw the stupidest product ever invented,” he remembered telling his girlfriend. “You’re supposed to walk around listening to music with headphones on?”
But as soon as he took the newfangled player around the block, he changed his tune. So did everyone else. Personalized mixtapes with clever (or, more often, corny) titles scribbled on “J-cards” blew up into a mass phenomenon. The act of consuming music in the confines of your own brain, once the exception, now dominates thanks to the digital evolution of playlists, giving rise to a headphone culture that helped propel the popularity of introspective artists from The Cure and Frank Ocean to current moody teen-pop queen Billie Eilish.
That isolating habit has, of course, also created social distance. It’s easier and more convenient than ever to shut out humanity, whether that’s the small-talking co-workers surrounding your cubicle or a man on the street hoping to get directions. In submitting to a solo experience, we necessarily recede from the possibilities of physical person-to-person interaction.
“We’ve never gone back,” Mr. Hajdu observed. You can thank (or blame) the Walkman for that.
How Sony’s First Walkman led to the Smartphone
Electronics brand Philips introduces magnetic cassettes, marketed to journalists and secretaries for transcribing interviews and taking notes. In 1977, Sony invades the market with its Pressman, a clunky recording device that serves as the basis for a Walkman prototype.
Sony’s first Walkman arrives following cofounder Masaru Ibuka’s suggestion to design a small personal audio player that could be optimized to play tapes, which surpassed 8-track sales by the mid-’70s. Apparently he was tired of lugging around a jumbo cassette recorder.
Sony debuts the Discman portable CD player shortly after the advent of compact discs, a format that would take center stage in the 1990s as we all obsessed over “burning” mixes for crushes. Despite improved sonic quality, the flimsy player skips far too often to jog with.
Sony unveils its idiosyncratic MiniDisc format, allowing for recording, data compression and customization that surpasses CDs. Sony manages to sell only about 50,000 players in the first year, but the MiniDisc Walkman would have a brief moment in the sun at the end of the decade.
Apple ships its iPod, ensuring the primacy of MP3s. Its vaunted success provides a road map for the transformative arrival of the iPhone in 2007. Sony, busy playing catch-up with MP3-based Walkmans after misguidedly sticking to its proprietary ATRAC format, falls woefully behind.
Just about everyone listens to Adele on smartphones in between responding to emoji-filled texts. A dwindling number of music worshipers still seeks out products like the iPod Touch, Mighty Vibe and Walkman, which allow you to enjoy one specific thing reasonably well.
But Why the Name ‘Walkman’?
IF YOU FORGET for a bit that the Walkman grew so omnipresent the word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, its name sounds…off. Virtually all men walk, and the name has nothing to do with music.
The tortured portmanteau is actually an invention of Sony’s Japanese team, combining “Walky,” the device’s working name that had to be scrapped because it was already in use and unavailable, and the “man” from the Pressman, a Sony cassette recorder on which the Walkman was based, explained translator Douglass McGowan. “The name was born of necessity rather than based on any sort of market research.”
Sony execs, worried “Walkman” wouldn’t translate outside Japan, first marketed it as the Soundabout in the U.S., the Stowaway in the U.K. and the Freestyle in Australia. Sony’s American division even floated another timely possibility—the Disco Jogger. But chairman Akio Morita nixed it, fearing it might alienate older customers who didn’t dig Donna Summer.
But when visitors to Japan started buying Walkmans to bring home, the name stuck and the sales volume cranked way up. Sure, “Walkman” still doesn’t really make sense. But it’s also impossible to forget.
The Walkman’s Walk-on Roles
Ghostbusters II (1989) Bill Murray and the squad ride a slimed Statue of Liberty through Manhattan while blasting “Higher and Higher” on a Walkman patched to a P.A. system.
Pretty Woman (1990) Julia Roberts, impossibly gorgeous and yet impossibly relatable, sings along to Prince playing on her Walkman Sports while splashing in the tub.
American Psycho (2000) Capitalist sociopath Patrick Bateman tries to listen to “the new Robert Palmer tape” but is interrupted by his fiancée attempting to discuss wedding plans.
Super 8 (2011) A gas station attendant bops his head to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” on the original Walkman but pulls down his headphones to investigate a grisly scene outside.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) Hero Peter Quill, a.k.a Star-Lord, cherishes a mixtape of classics made by his mom, a plot device that nearly single-handedly revived the cassette industry.
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