Recorded History: The Sony Walkman Turns 40

iStock
iStock

The journalists had never experienced anything like it, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Packed into buses headed for Yoyogi Park near Sony’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, they knew the electronics giant was excited about a product launch set for July 1, 1979. But what had been handed to them after boarding was confusing.

It was a blue-accented device, made mostly of metal and roughly 6 inches long by 3.5 inches wide. Inside was a standard audio cassette. It could be held in one hand, clipped to a belt, or—more awkwardly—hung around the neck. A pair of compact, foam-encased headphones trailed from the unit to the user’s ears, where it emitted a surprisingly rich stereo sound.

But it had no recording feature like Sony’s Pressman, which media members had used for years to document conversations. And the scene at Yoyogi Park was odd: Dozens of Sony staffers were riding tandem bicycles, skateboarding, and swaying while bystanders looked on, baffled. No one was talking; the product announcement was being piped in to reporters via a recording on the device. Sony dubbed it the Walkman, and it insisted it would revolutionize how the world consumed music.

The assembled media members took in the presentation, returned to the bus, and shrugged. Who was going to wear a miniaturized stereo that cost $200 USD?

Enough people, it turns out, for over 400 million Walkmans to be sold in the coming decades; enough for Sony’s profits to grow so substantially that they could afford to buy a movie studio, Columbia Pictures; enough that city officials would declare them a public nuisance that could result in deadly traffic accidents or ear damage.

Sony had anticipated a need and profited handsomely. But while the company became synonymous with the Walkman, there’s a one asterisk to their story—they didn’t actually invent it.

ad for sony walkman

Portable listening devices were, of course, nothing new. Transistor radios grew popular in the 1950s by shrinking components to allow for a pocket-sized listening experience. The drawback was that the user was limited to picking up broadcast stations and whatever playlist the programming director preferred. They were also tinny, the earbuds laughably weak next to proper stereo systems. Real, lost-in-the-music moments were reserved for bedrooms equipped with record players and floorboards that could stand up to the adolescent hysteria incited by Elvis or the Beatles.

Masaru Ibuka’s teenage years were decades in the rear-view mirror, but he identified with their passion for music. A co-founder of Sony, Ibuka was disappointed he couldn’t bring a cassette player with him on long, transatlantic plane rides. Why, he asked engineers, couldn’t they develop a device that was small enough to carry around while allowing the user to listen to whatever he or she wanted?

Akio Morita, Ibuka’s partner, agreed, and the two set a deadline: They wanted a product ready for the start of summer vacation on July 1, a marketing opportunity for people exercising or relaxing outdoors. Under a time crunch, Kozo Ohsone, Shizuo Takashino and other developers took their Pressman—a bulky recorder meant for a niche market—and removed the recording mechanism, adding a lightweight pair of headphones and a stereo amplifier. (To create something completely from scratch would not only take more time, it would be more risk: A prototype that broke down would not go over well.)

Morita took their modified Pressman home and listened to it. It was exactly what he and Ibuka wanted, with one exception: His wife was annoyed at the isolating nature of the device. Morita didn’t want Sony to market a “rude” product, so he had his team add a second headphone jack and an orange button that allowed two listeners to talk to each other through a microphone.

Sony’s Pressman evolved into the TPS-L2, a cassette player designed to resemble antique Japanese lacquered boxes. “Walkman” was taken from both Pressman and Superman, a character recently re-introduced to the public eye because of the 1978 feature film. “Walkman” also hinted at locomotion, the idea of breaking free from home stereos and going where you pleased.

Morita and Ibuka thought they had a hit, but the press disagreed. The lack of a recording feature confounded them, and their apathy leaked into the market. In July 1979, the first month Walkmans were on sale, only 3000 units were sold. In a controlled panic, Sony’s marketing department decided that the Walkman experience was so singular that they would have to be aggressive. Japanese celebrities were recruited for print ads; Sony employees rode trains and patrolled busy pedestrian-packed districts on weekends, extending headphones so consumers could listen for themselves. No ad or slogan could really describe the unique experience of cutting the cord from elaborate home stereos. The Walkman had to be worn to be appreciated.

Sony’s assertive plan worked. Twenty-seven thousand units were sold in August, which depleted the company of its initial 30,000-unit production run. Tourists returned to France, the UK and the U.S. with the devices, seeding the company’s expansion plans. By early 1980, the Walkman was headed for America.

Morita had considered calling it the Soundabout in the States, but “Walkman” was already on the lips of early adopters who had heard of or seen the portable device. Sporting a stylish leather cover, it quickly became an urban accessory must-have. Walkmans in New York became as pervasive as potholes, with users acknowledging one another on the street as though they belonged to the same fraternity.

In their first mention of the Walkman on July 7, 1980, the New York Times declared it a status symbol:

Josh Lansing and the young blonde woman had never even met before, but as they passed each other on Madison Avenue the other afternoon, she waved and smiled and he tipped his headphones in salute ... What the two well-dressed strangers first noticed about each other was that they were both possessors of the newest status symbol around town: the Walkman …”It's just like Mercedes-Benz owners honking when they pass each other on the road,” explained Mr. Lansing, whose cassette hung from his Gucci belt.

Andy Warhol told the Washington Post he preferred the sound of Pavarotti over blaring car horns; beaches that had banned radios took no issue with the solitary nature of portables. The soundtrack of life could not only be changed, but muted.

That latter feature was of concern to Woodbridge, N.J., which passed an ordinance in 1982 that banned the Walkman and its knock-offs from anyone driving or riding a bike on a public street, joining nine other states with similar prohibitions. Wearing headphones for extended periods also concerned audiologists, who feared ear damage from constant musical accompaniment to homework, working out, or isolated jobs like toll collecting or taxi driving. Even repair shops chimed in, saying the parts were too tiny to repair and hanging signs refusing service to the Sony elite.

None of this slowed the Walkman’s momentum. The company shipped over 500,000 units worldwide in 1980 and tripled that in 1981. In 1983, the company introduced the WM-10, which was only a third the size of the original. It featured a “drawer" that retracted when the cassette tray was empty. More importantly, it had earbuds that allowed ambient noise to leak in, easing safety concerns. In 1988 they released the WM-505, the first model with wireless headphones, over 12 years before the first Bluetooth headset.

The Walkman featured prominently in Footloose; Marty McFly used it to terrorize the transistor-era of the 1950s in Back to the Future; “walkmans” became a colloquial term for any portable device in the way Kleenex had become the standard declaration for a tissue.

By the time it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986, Sony had invented, invaded, and conquered an entirely new consumer electronics space.

At least, that's what they had assumed. The same year they made the OED, the company offered a settlement to Andreas Pavel, who for years had taken issue with the “invention” portion of Sony’s story. A devout music lover, he filed a patent in Milan, Italy in 1977 for something he informally referred to as a stereobelt. He tried courting manufacturers, but Philips and Yamaha weren’t interested. Years later, he took note of the Walkman. A case of communal thinking, Pavel was still peeved his discovery had found success without him, though it was for financial rather than personal reasons. "I don't want to be reduced to the label of being the inventor of the Walkman," he told the New York Times

After two decades of off-and-on court fights, he settled with Sony in 2003. A testament to the Walkman's immense success, the company reportedly cut him a check for eight figures.

Sony

By the late 1980s, the Walkman had grown to accommodate CDs (the Discman) and television (the bulky Watchman). In the 1990s, MP3 devices took up much of their development time, but nothing could anticipate—or compete against—the shift caused by Apple’s iPod in the 2000s. By 2010, Sony announced it would be discontinuing the cassette-based Walkman brand in most territories. Just as Sony users had stamped out transistors and boom boxes in the 1980s to become a societal badge of cool, the iPod’s devotees would settle for nothing less than an Apple.

Cool, of course, is relative. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy resurrected both the device and the concept of a mix tape, with Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill using the TPS-L2 as an emotional lifeline to his childhood on Earth. Previously trading for around $100 among collectors, the model shot up to nearly $1000 after the movie was released; a rare “Guys & Dolls” version, which labeled the headphone jacks by gender, can sell for nearly $3000. Thanks to Pratt, the Walkman had come full circle.

Ibuka, incidentally, never quite got his wish. After his team scrambled to modify a Pressman in time for his next international flight, he settled into his seat and hit play. Nothing happened. In their rush to find some classical music for Ibuka to listen to, the engineers accidentally grabbed a bunch of blank cassettes.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

The Meteoric Rise—and Tragic Fall—of NASA's Skylab

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On May 14, 1973, NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station. It fell to earth six years later, burning up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979.

Skylab itself was a heavily modified third stage of a Saturn V rocket—the same system we used to send Apollo missions to the moon. The station was huge, measuring more than 80 feet in length, with a 21-foot diameter. During launch, Skylab 1 suffered major damage to its solar array, which delayed the launch of the Skylab 2 crew (originally intended to launch the day after Skylab itself reached orbit). The Skylab 2 mission was modified to include repair work to the solar power system and installation of a solar heat shield, as the original one was lost during launch. The Skylab 2 crew launched on May 25, 1973.

The Skylab missions resulted in new information about long-term space habitation (including an awesome space shower). The first crew spent 28 days in space; the second crew more than doubled that at 59 days; and the final crew (Skylab 4) spent 84 days up there. That last record was not broken by an American for two decades. Skylab also focused on solar science, Earth science, and microgravity experiments.

Skylab was something of a bridge between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Indeed, Skylab was supposed to be serviced (and its orbit boosted) by the first Shuttle, but it wasn't ready in time. Skylab's orbit decayed, eventually causing it to disintegrate and fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean on July 11, 1979. Chunks of the station made a bit of a fireworks display streaking through the atmosphere, and ultimately littered a swath of Australia. No injuries were reported from the falling debris, though media coverage of the reentry was intense.

Here's a short NASA documentary on Skylab, explaining the story of the station. Have a look:

If you'd like to relive the launch, here's live TV coverage from that day:

And if you'd like to learn more about its crash, and what it taught NASA moving forward, watch this:

This story has been updated for 2020.