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July 1, 2024 9 mins

On this day in 1979, the original Sony Walkman portable cassette player was released in Japan.

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Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:00):
This Day in History Class is a production of iHeartRadio.
Hello and welcome to This Day in History Class, a
show for those who can never know enough about history.
I'm Gabe Lucier and in this episode we're talking about
the world famous Sony Walkman, the compact cassette player that

turned portable music into a personal experience. The day was
July one, nineteen seventy nine. The original Sony Walkman portable
cassette player was released in Japan with a price tag
of about one hundred and fifty US dollars. The device

was aimed squarely a Japanese students on the go, but
despite its low price and revolutionary concept, the Walkman only
sold a meager three thousand units during its first month
on the market. Luckily, good word of mouth and a
clever marketing campaign were able to turn things around, and
by the following year, the Sony Walkman was a bonafide

global sensation. The idea of a portable music player wasn't
new in itself. Transistor radios first hit store shelves in
the nineteen fifties, granting people more control than ever over
when and where to listen to music. But the early
technology had its downsides. For one thing, users had to

be within range of a radio broadcast station or else
all they would hear is static, and when they were
able to pick up a signal, they were still at
the mercy of the radio programmers and had no say
in which songs were played. But perhaps the biggest drawback
to transistor radios was the poor sound quality, especially when

listening with headphones. The weak, tinny sound was a far
cry from playing a record on a home stereo, so
although it was cheap, portable, and better than nothing, the
listening experience left a lot to be desired. In the
nineteen seventies, portable music players took a giant leap forward
with the introduction of the boombox. With its powerful built

in speakers, listeners no longer had to compromise on sound quality,
and thanks to the addition of a cassette tape deck,
they were no longer limited to radio playlists either. Still,
these additions took their toll on the device's portability. A
boombox couldn't fit in your pocket or even in most backpacks,
and since the speakers were the main draw, it didn't

make sense to listen with headphones. Japanese electronics company Sony
began to address this problem in the late nineteen seventies
when they launched a range of portable stereo cassette recorders.
They were niche products with hefty price tags, and because
they prioritized recording functions over playback, the devices of appealed

more to journalists and audio files than to the average consumer.
That seemed like a wasted opportunity to Sony co founder
and chairman Masaru Ibuka. He frequently found himself on long
transatlantic flights wishing that he had a way to listen
to music without disturbing other passengers. In early nineteen seventy nine,

he considered bringing one of the company's portable stereo recorders
to use as a tape player, but the most recent model,
the TCD five, was too big and too heavy to
travel with comfortably. That disappointment led Ibuka to wonder if
a smaller, cheaper tape player could be made, one that
was meant to be listened to through headphones, a portable

personal stereo. Masaru Ibuka pitched the idea to his partner
Akio Morita, and the two agreed it would be a
perfect product to launch the start of summer vacation on
July first. The only problem was that was just four
months away, and it would take much longer to develop

a new product from scratch. So in order to meet
the aggressive deadline, Sony's engineers had to get creative. They
built a working prototype by modifying one of the company's
existing products, the Sony Pressman, a monaural microcassette recorder that
was popular among reporters. The team stripped out the Pressman's

recording mechanism and used the space to add a stereo
amplifier and a full sized tape tray. Then they whipped
up a lightweight pair of headphones so that the listener
wouldn't have to wear the clunky earmuff like headphones that
were meant for home stereos. The proto Walkman was exactly
what Ibuka and Morita had in mind, but some Sony

executives weren't convinced there was a market for a playback
only portable stereo Ebukaw was baffled by their concern when
simply responded, quote, don't you think a stereo cassette player
that you can listen to while walking around is a
good idea? To say that it was would be an understatement.

The Sony Walkman, or Walkman, as it was meant to
be pronounced, was launched in Japan on July first, nineteen
seventy nine, and although sales were slow at first, the
product made a swift recovery thanks to an ingenious consumer
marketing campaign. That summer, Sony representatives hit the streets of
Tokyo and offered passers by the chance to listen to

the Walkman for themselves. For most it was their first
time ever seeing or even holding the device. The original
model was mostly made of metal and colored silver with
blue accents. At roughly six inches long and three and
a half inches wide, it wasn't much bigger than a
standard audio cassette, small enough to hold in one hand

or to clip onto a belt or bag. Nearly as
impressive were the compact foam in cased headphones that came
included with each unit. The people who slipped them on
that summer were treated to surprisingly rich stereo sound, and
they must have liked what they heard, because by the
end of August, Sony had sold through its entire thirty

thousand unit production run. Some of those units were sold
to tourists who then returned to their home countries and
immediately became the envy of every music fan they knew.
Thanks to the buzz created by those early adopters, the
Walkman was fast tracked for a US launch in early
nineteen eighty. The only question remaining was what to call

the device. The Japanese name Walkman was meant to suggest mobility,
since the major selling point was the freedom to listen
to whatever you wanted wherever you went. The man part
was added to evoke both the Sony Pressman and DC
Comics Superman, a character who had recently returned to prominence

thanks to the nineteen seventy eight live action movie. Sony
wasn't sure that such an abstract name would fly overseas,
so it considered calling the device the Soundabout instead. Sony
America meanwhile, wanted to call it the Disco Jogger, since
both disco and jogging were popular in the States. Thankfully,

cooler heads prevailed, and since people were already in the
habit of calling it the Walkman by that point, the
original name stayed put. We'll never know how the Sony
Disco Jogger may have performed, but the Sony Walkman did
just fine. It sold half a million units worldwide in
nineteen eighty and then tripled that the following year. The

Walkman changed its look many times over the next three decades,
evolving with music's changing mediums, from tapes to CDs and
even to MP three's, But the shift to music's dreaming
in the early twenty first century proved to be the
device's downfall, and in twenty ten, Sony announced that the
original cassette tape line would be discontinued for good. The

device itself may be obsolete except to guardians of the
Galaxy cause players, but the personalized music revolution started by
the Sony Walkman is still alive today. With smartphones and earbuds,
people continue to act as their own DJs, creating soundtracks
to their lives and carrying music with them wherever they go.

I'm Gay, Blues Gay, and hopefully you now know a
little more about history today than you did yesterday. If
you'd like to keep up with the show, you can
follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at TDI HC Show,
and if you have any comments or suggestions, feel free
to send them my way by writing to this day

at iHeartMedia dot com. Thanks to kazy Bias for producing
the show, and thanks to you for listening. I'll see
you back here again tomorrow for another day in history class.

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