Recorded History: The Sony Walkman Turns 40

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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.

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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.

Watch John Krasinski Interview Steve Carell About The Office's 15th Anniversary

John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
John Krasinski and Steve Carell in The Office.
NBC Universal, Inc.

The Office just passed a major milestone: It has been 15 years since the American adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's hit British sitcom made its way to NBC, where it ran for nine seasons. To celebrate the show's big anniversary, former co-stars John Krasinski and Steve Carell reunited in the best way possible: Carell appeared as a guest on Krasinski's new YouTube show, where the two decided to spread some positivity.

Krasinski just launched his very own news show titled Some Good News, and it's exactly what we've all been needing. During this segment, he interviewed Carell via video call, and the two shared their favorite memories of working on the beloved workplace comedy.

"It's such a happy surprise," Carell said of The Office's continued success. "After all these years people are still tuning in and finding it." The two also addressed the question that's been on every fan's mind: is there a chance that we'll see the Dunder Mifflin crew reunite in some way?

"Listen, I know everyone's talking about a reunion," Krasinski said. "Hopefully one day we'll just all get to reunite as people."

You can watch the full episode below. (Carell joins the video around the 5:50 minute mark.)

15 Facts About John Brown, the Real-Life Abolitionist at the Center of The Good Lord Bird

John Brown, circa 1846.
John Brown, circa 1846.
Augustus Washington/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859, was meant to start an armed slave revolt, and ultimately end slavery. Though Brown succeeded in taking over the federal armory, the revolt never came to pass—and Brown paid for the escapade with his life.

In the more than 160 years since that raid, John Brown has been called a hero, a madman, a martyr, and a terrorist. Now Showtime is exploring his legacy with an adaption of James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird. Like the novel it’s based on, the miniseries—which stars Ethan Hawke—will cover the exploits of Brown and his allies. Here's what you should know about John Brown before you watch.

1. John Brown was born into an abolitionist family on May 9, 1800.

John Brown was born to Owen and Ruth Mills Brown in Torrington, Connecticut, on May 9, 1800. After his family relocated to Hudson, Ohio (where John was raised), their new home would become an Underground Railroad station. Owen would go on to co-found the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and was a trustee at the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, one of the first American colleges to admit black (and female) students.

2. John Brown declared bankruptcy at age 42.

At 16, Brown went to school with the hope of becoming a minister, but eventually left the school and, like his father, became a tanner. He also dabbled in surveying, canal-building, and the wool trade. In 1835, he bought land in northeastern Ohio. Thanks partly the financial panic of 1837, Brown couldn’t satisfy his creditors and had to declare bankruptcy in 1842. He later tried peddling American wool abroad in Europe, where he was forced to sell it at severely reduced prices. This opened the door for multiple lawsuits when Brown returned to America.

3. John Brown's Pennsylvania home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania
The John Brown Tannery Site in Pennsylvania.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Sometime around 1825, Brown moved himself and his family to Guys Mills, Pennsylvania, where he set up a tannery and built a house and a barn with a hidden room that was used by slaves on the run. Brown reportedly helped 2500 slaves during his time in Pennsylvania; the building was destroyed in 1907 [PDF], but the site, which is now a museum that is open to the public, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Brown moved his family back to Ohio in 1836.

4. After Elijah Lovejoy's murder, John Brown pledged to end slavery.

Elijah Lovejoy was a journalist and the editor of the St. Louis/Alton Observer, a staunchly anti-slavery newspaper. His editorials enraged those who defended slavery, and in 1837, Lovejoy was killed when a mob attacked the newspaper’s headquarters.

The incident lit a fire under Brown. When he was told about Lovejoy’s murder at an abolitionist prayer meeting in Hudson, Brown—a deeply religious man—stood up and raised his right hand, saying “Here, before God, in the presence of these witnesses, from this time, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery."

5. John Brown moved to the Kansas Territory after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which decreed that it would be the people of Kansas and Nebraska who would decide if their territories would be free states or slave states. New England abolitionists hoping to convert the Kansas Territory into a Free State moved there in droves and founded the city of Lawrence. By the end of 1855, John Brown had also relocated to Kansas, along with six of his sons and his son-in-law. Opposing the newcomers were slavery supporters who had also arrived in large numbers.

6. John Brown’s supporters killed five pro-slavery men at the 1856 Pottawatomie Massacre.

A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry
A John Brown mural by John Steuart Curry.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On May 21, 1856, Lawrence was sacked by pro-slavery forces. The next day, Charles Sumner, an anti-slavery Senator from Massachusetts, was beaten with a cane by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor until he lost consciousness. (A few days earlier, Sumner had insulted Democratic senators Stephen Douglas and Andrew Butler in his "Crime Against Kansas" speech; Brooks was a representative from Butler’s state of South Carolina.)

In response to those events, Brown led a group of abolitionists into a pro-slavery settlement by the Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24. On Brown’s orders, five slavery sympathizers were forced out of their houses and killed with broadswords.

Newspapers across the country denounced the attack—and John Brown in particular. But that didn't dissuade him: Before his final departure from Kansas in 1859, Brown participated in many other battles across the region. He lost a son, Frederick Brown, in the fighting.

7. John Brown led a party of liberated slaves all the way from Missouri to Michigan.

In December 1858, John Brown crossed the Kansas border and entered the slave state of Missouri. Once there, he and his allies freed 11 slaves and led them all the way to Detroit, Michigan, covering a distance of more than 1000 miles. (One of the liberated women gave birth en route.) Brown’s men had killed a slaveholder during their Missouri raid, so President James Buchanan put a $250 bounty on the famed abolitionist. That didn’t stop Brown, who got to watch the people he’d helped free board a ferry and slip away into Canada.

8. John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was meant to instigate a nationwide slave uprising.

On October 16, 1859, Brown and 18 men—including five African Americans—seized control of a U.S. armory in the Jefferson County, Virginia (today part of West Virginia) town of Harpers Ferry. The facility had around 100,000 weapons stockpiled there by the late 1850s. Brown hoped his actions would inspire a large-scale slave rebellion, with enslaved peoples rushing to collect free guns, but the insurrection never came.

9. Robert E. Lee played a part in John Brown’s arrest.

Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
Artist Thomas Hovenden depicts John Brown after his capture.
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Shortly after Brown took Harpers Ferry, the area was surrounded by local militias. On the orders of President Buchanan, Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee entered the fray with a detachment of U.S. Marines. The combined might of regional and federal forces proved too much for Brown, who was captured in the Harpers Ferry engine house on October 18, 1859. Ten of Brown's men died, including two more of his sons.

10. John Brown was put on trial a week after his capture.

After his capture, Brown—along with Aaron Stevens, Edwin Coppoc, Shields Green, and John Copeland—was put on trial. When asked if the defendants had counsel, Brown responded:

"Virginians, I did not ask for any quarter at the time I was taken. I did not ask to have my life spared. The Governor of the State of Virginia tendered me his assurance that I should have a fair trial: but, under no circumstances whatever will I be able to have a fair trial. If you seek my blood, you can have it at any moment, without this mockery of a trial. I have had no counsel: I have not been able to advise with anyone ... I am ready for my fate. I do not ask a trial. I beg for no mockery of a trial—no insult—nothing but that which conscience gives, or cowardice would drive you to practice. I ask again to be excused from the mockery of a trial."

Brown would go on to plead not guilty. Just days later, he was found “guilty of treason, and conspiring and advising with slaves and others to rebel, and murder in the first degree” and was sentenced to hang.

11. John Brown made a grim prophecy on the morning of his death.

On the morning of December 2, 1859, Brown passed his jailor a note that read, “I … am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” He was hanged later that day.

12. Victor Hugo defended John Brown.

Victor Hugo—the author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was also an abolitionist—penned an open letter on John Brown’s behalf in 1859. Desperate to see him pardoned, Hugo wrote, “I fall on my knees, weeping before the great starry banner of the New World … I implore the illustrious American Republic, sister of the French Republic, to see to the safety of the universal moral law, to save John Brown.” Hugo’s appeals were of no use. The letter was dated December 2—the day Brown was hanged.

13. Abraham Lincoln commented on John Brown's death.

Abraham Lincoln, who was then in Kansas, said, “Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We cannot object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That cannot excuse violence, bloodshed and treason. It could avail him nothing that he might think himself right.”

14. John Brown was buried in North Elba, New York.

John Brown's gravesite in New York
John Brown's gravesite in New York.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1849, Brown had purchased 244 acres of property from Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist, in North Elba, New York. The property was near Timbuctoo, a 120,000-acre settlement that Smith had started in 1846 to give African American families the property they needed in order to vote (at that time, state law required black residents to own $250 worth of property to cast a vote). Brown had promised Smith that he would assist his new neighbors in cultivating the mountainous terrain.

When Brown was executed, his family interred the body at their North Elba farm—which is now a New York State Historic Site.

15. The tribute song "John Brown's Body" shares its melody with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

It didn’t take long for Brown to become a martyr. Early in the 1860s, the basic melody of “Say Brothers Will You Meet Us,” a popular camp hymn, was fitted with new lyrics about the slain abolitionist. Titled “John Brown’s Body,” the song spread like wildfire in the north—despite having some lines that were deemed unsavory. Julia Ward Howe took the melody and gave it yet another set of lyrics. Thus was born “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a Union marching anthem that's still widely known today.

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