Long before the iPod was on the scene, Sony’s portable cassette player The Walkman changed the way people listen to music
Words by Debika Ray
In the late 1970s, Japanese electronics company Sony revolutionised the way we listen to music with its ultra-lightweight personal cassette tape player.
The first every Walkman was designed for Sony’s co-founder Masaru Ibuka, who wanted to be able to listen to opera music on long flights and found that even the smallest of the personal audio players was still too big to be travel friendly. A prototype was quickly made for him, and the Walkman was born. It had different names in different global markets, including the “Soundabout” and the “Freestyle”, but by the early 1980s only the name Walkman remained.
Released in 1979, the Walkman was not much bigger than a cassette tape. The prototype was based on a tape recorder that had been designed for journalists in 1977. The original Walkman was made of aluminium and the metal case was coloured blue and silver. Later editions moved over to black plastic casing. When it launched it sold for around $150, and after a slow first month of sales the Walkman became one of the company’s greatest hits, way outselling its own predictions.
Sony also designed headphones that were lightweight and comfortable to wear while on the move. Previously earphones were much heavier and bulkier, but with these new ones Sony made walking around with headphones on seen like “normal” behaviour. The device revolutionised the way we listen to music and allowed people to overlay music onto their everyday lives. Music became suddenly more personal. It was the first in a long line of personal, portable music players – laying the path for iPods and MP3 players.
Sony organised a press launch for the Walkman and took journalists to a park in Tokyo, gave each of them a Walkman to wear that played a tape explaining the new product and instructing them to look around the park for certain staged examples of how people might use the Walkman in everyday life.
The Walkman evolved with music’s changing mediums, from cassette tapes through CDs, mini-discs and MP3, and most recently to music streaming. The original cassette tape line was discontinued in 2010, but Sony’s music App is still called the Walkman.