We’ve all found sanctuary in our headphones, hands down the best way to power through a workout, tune out fellow shoppers, or (admit it) neutralize co-workers. Thank Sony co-founder Masaru Ibuka for the concept of portable music.
Frequent flyer Ibuka was tired of hauling around a hefty cassette recorder to listen to music while he traveled, so he challenged Sony executive Norio Ohga to design a portable cassette player for use with headphones. Ohga tweaked Sony’s existing Pressman device before Ibuka’s next flight—and even though the prototype required custom batteries that ran out somewhere over the Pacific, Ibuka was hooked. Sony began selling the Sony Walkman TPS-L2 on July 1, 1979, in Japan. The $150 device weighed 14 ounces, ran on AA batteries, featured a headphone jack but no external speaker, and revolutionized the way we consume music.
Initially, sales were disappointing, but then Sony employees headed out into the streets of Tokyo, letting potential consumers try the Walkman firsthand, and by the end of August, Sony had sold 50,000 Walkmans. The device entered the U.S. market in July 1980, and cassette tapes outsold vinyl for the first time in 1983. (Sony considered calling the Walkman the “Sound-About” in the U.S. and the “Stowaway” in the U.K., but sticking with “Walkman” worldwide proved fruitful: The Oxford English Dictionary has included a listing for Walkman since 1986.)
By the time Sony retired the Walkman cassette line in 2010, when consumers had moved on to the iPod and iPhone, the company had sold more than 400 million Walkmans, half of them portable cassette players.
Tech Time Warp is a weekly feature that looks back at interesting moments and milestones in tech history.
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