The Soundtrack to Your Life

Celebrating 30 years of the Sony Walkman


When Sony introduced the Walkman 30 years ago, on July 1, 1979, it was, in a sense, already obsolete: Both Sony and Philips were already well on their way to developing the compact discs that would make trying to surgically repair the distended guts of your favorite REO Speedwagon cassette with a paper clip mere fodder for misplaced nostalgia. Plus, a tape recorder that didn't record? How was that progress, except for the companies selling tape recorders that did record and record labels selling pre-recorded cassettes?

As NYU management professor William H. Starbuck recounted in the International Journal of Technology Management in 1996, even many Sony executives were dubious about the device's commercial potential. It cost more to produce than its target market-teenagers—was likely to spend. While Sony chairman Akio Morito championed the Walkman and ordered an initial run of 60,000 units, managers in the tape recording division, fearing the company would lose money on every sale, secretly halved the order to 30,000.

Fast-forward 30 years. You may not be able to find many pre-recorded cassettes at your local music retailer anymore. If your local music retailer still exists, that is. You can, however, still buy a Sony Walkman cassette player—and myriad descendents and spin-offs that bear the brand. Needless to say, those skeptical managers in the Sony tape recording division severely underestimated the demand for personalized mobile music.

The first Walkman weighed in at a solid 390 grams (plus 50 grams for the headphones). With its strong square lines and metallic blue finish, it was almost as streamlined as today's surge protectors. To emphasize its portability, Morito reportedly had a shirt custom-tailored with an oversized chest pocket in which to carry the 3.5 x 5.5 x 1.25 inch device.

Now, of course, any high-tech gadget that's not tiny enough to pose as a choking hazard to small children is not truly sexy. In 1979, stuffing a high-fidelity stereo into a shirt pocket—even a deviously engineered shirt pocket—constituted a miracle of sorts. At a time when microcomputers still appealed mainly to hardcore spreadsheet fetishists, the Walkman was the sexiest piece of personal electronics ever devised. It was a piece of the future you could hold in your hand.

Indeed, all that an LED watch could do was help you see the time in movie theaters, while the pocket calculator only helped you get bored with math faster. In contrast, the Walkman wasn't just a machine, something you used pragmatically, intermittently. The Walkman gave you your own personal soundtrack with which to dramatize your life. It was your faithful companion, an anthropomorphized buddy/servant who motivated you, palliated you, and simply kept you company throughout the day. It was your cassette pet.

Six months after its debut in Japan, the device reached American shores. It cost $200, or $589 in 2009 dollars. At Bloomingdale's, the New York Times reported, there was a four to eight-week waiting list to obtain one. Impatient trendsetters offered to pay as much as $300 for display models.

Despite the high price, the Walkman was ultimately a leveling device. A few years earlier, portable stereo systems—boomboxes—had liberated those who wanted to take their music with them everywhere from the tyranny of Top 40 playlists. But boomboxes offered sonic freedom only to those who were strong enough to lug a battery-eating briefcase around and intimidating enough to impose their love of The Village People on others without censure. For anyone with $200, however, the Walkman delivered the same aural sovereignty.

In early Walkman marketing efforts and promotional materials, Sony emphasized how the device could enhance leisure activities like roller-skating and bicycling. Echoing R. Crumb's iconic Keep on Truckin' motif, the Walkman's original logo featured four feet emphatically propelling the word "Walkman" along. Despite its status as a "personal" stereo system, Sony also presented the Walkman as a social device: The original model featured two headphone jacks, along with an orange "hotline" button that allowed two users to talk to each other over whatever tape was currently playing. This feature, Sony executives believed, would keep the Walkman from being perceived as selfish.

They shouldn't have worried. Just a few years earlier, after all, Tom Wolfe had dubbed the 1970s the Me Decade. "Have it your way!" Burger King insisted to potential customers. Consumers were eager to turn listening to music into a solitary, immersive experience. And they didn't necessarily want to have to put on a pair of running shoes to enjoy their Walkmans either. Indeed, as much Sony positioned the device as an accessory for the sort of kinetic, upbeat fun that transpired in nominally social contexts, that was only one way to use it.

The Walkman also served as an extremely effective "Do Not Disturb" sign. Take a book on the subway to discourage interaction with fellow travelers, and you were likely to inspire inquiries about the book. Take a Walkman, and you were suddenly as inaccessible as a lone car commuter protected by the glass and steel of his GM sedan. As effective as the Walkman was in pushing us toward Rocky-like moments of transcendence on the treadmill, its most unique attribute was its ability to enhance life's lesser moments.

In grocery store lines, school cafeterias, airport lounge holding pens, boring college lectures, and every other public or semi-public place where blabbermouths with boundary issues once wielded absolute license to accost you, a new sense of privacy came into existence The Walkman was so good at enveloping its users in a no-fly zone of self-containment it even made private life more private. It didn't matter if you were at the dinner table, in the family room, in the marital bed—with a pair of Walkman headphones clamped to your head, you were clearly otherwise engaged.

Or, to hear critics tell it, disengaged. While initial accounts of the Walkman often touted it as a civil alternative to boomboxes, the "growing headphone movement," as the New York Times ominously dubbed it in 1981, prompted charges that the Walkman was "socially alienating" and "destructive of relationships." No doubt this was true in some cases—but if retreating to the harrowing cocoon of Huey Lewis and the News for hours on end represented a viable means of escape for one half of an unhappy marriage, that union was already too far gone to save. And what, really, was so great about the random moments of social interaction the Walkman deterred? Except for affairs, small talk about the weather, and the occasional plan to outsource the murder of one's spouse, not much ever came from talking to strangers on a train. Prior to the Walkman and its spawn, people disengaged in public by blanking their faces and shutting off their minds. Huge chunks of life were spent this way, in zombie mode, doing nothing productive, nothing pleasurable.

As RiShawn Biddle suggested in Reason ten years ago on the Walkman's 20th anniversary, making mixtapes for our personal stereo systems (where limited battery life meant zero tolerance for throwaway songs) whetted our appetites for the coming age of interactivity. To further prep us for the way we live now, the Walkman also popularized the notion that downtime was no longer necessary, that we could assuage our restless dissatisfaction with something more nourishing than the thin gruel of "I'd rather be sailing" bumper stickers.

With a Walkman, every moment could be, if not ideal, then at least more ambient, more aligned with one's particular tastes, more fulfilling. It made us realize we didn't have to just sit on a bus, as dead to the world as a plastic plant—or even worse, reading. We could be listening to Billy Joel! And if we could be listening to Billy Joel, couldn't we also be playing videogames, or watching movies, or laboriously tapping out 140-character messages to strangers on keyboards the size of a business card? And if we could do such things while stuck on a bus, or waiting in line at a grocery store, then surely we could do them while stuck in our cubicles at work, or eating lunch with our less interesting friends. Indeed, as soon as the Walkman hit store shelves, the looming promise of our highly mobile, super-empowered, hyper-productive future grew clearer: Never again would we have to endure the tedium of doing one thing at once.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.