The Walkman, Forty Years On

The Walkman, Forty Years On

The gadget(ˈɡajət) that taught(tôt) the world to socially(ˈsōSHəlē) distance.

By Matt Alt

Even prior(ˈprī(ə)r) to extended quarantines(ˈkwôrənˌtēn), lockdowns, and self-isolation, it was hard to imagine life without the electronic(əˌlekˈtränik) escapes(əˈskāp) of noise-cancelling earbuds(ˈirbəd), smartphones, and tablets(ˈtablət). Today, it seems impossible. Of course, there was most certainly a before and after, a point around which the cultural(ˈkəlCH(ə)rəl) gravity(ˈɡravədē) of our plugged-in-yet-tuned-out modern lives shifted. Its name is Walkman, and it was invented, in Japan, in 1979. After the Walkman arrived on American shores(SHôr), in June of 1980, under the temporary name of Soundabout, our days would never be the same.

Up to this point, music was primarily a shared experience: families huddling(ˈhədl) around furniture-sized Philcos; teens(tēnz) blasting(blast) tunes(t(y)o͞on) from automobiles(ˈôdəmōˌbēl) or sock(säk)-hopping to transistor(tranˈzistər) radios; the bar-room juke(jo͞ok); break-dancers popping and locking to the sonic(ˈsänik) backdrop of a boom box. After the Walkman, music could be silence to all but the listener, cocooned(kəˈko͞on) within a personal soundscape(ˈsoun(d)skāp), which spooled(spo͞ol) on analog(ˈanlˌôɡ) cassette(kəˈset) tape(tāp). The effect was shocking even to its creators. “Everyone knows what headphones sound like today,” the late Sony designer Yasuo Kuroki wrote in a Japanese-language memoir(ˈmemˌwär), from 1990. “But at the time, you couldn’t even imagine it, and then suddenly Beethoven’s(ˈbāthōvən) Fifth is hammering(ˈhaməriNG) between your ears.”

The initial(iˈniSHəl) incarnation(ˌinkärˈnāSH(ə)n) of the Walkman, the TPS-L2, was envisioned(ənˈviZHən) as a toy for Japanese high-school and college students to use as they studied. (Sharp-eyed fans will recognize the distinctive(dəˈstiNG(k)tiv) silver(ˈsilvər) and blue TPS-L2 as the model carried by Peter(ˈpēdər) Quill(kwil) in Marvel’s(ˈmärvəl) “Guardians(ˈɡärdēən) of the Galaxy(ˈɡaləksē)” films.) Sony’s chairman at the time, the genial(jəˈnēəl,ˈjēnyəl) Akio Morita(mə’ridə), was so unsure of the device’s prospects(ˈpräˌspekt) that he ordered a manufacturing(ˌman(y)əˈfakCHəriNG) run of only thirty thousand, a drop in the bucket compared to such established lines as Trinitron(trinə’) televisions. Initially, he seemed right to be cautious(ˈkôSHəs). The Walkman débuted(dāˈbyo͞o) in Japan to near silence. But word quickly spread among the youth of Tokyo about a strange new device that let you carry(ˈkerē) a soundtrack out of your bedroom, onto commuter(kəˈmyo͞odər) trains, and into city streets. Within a year and a half of the appearance of the Walkman, Sony would produce and sell two million of them.