Anatomy of a Tech Icon (#1): 1st Sony Walkman


Today the term ‘Iconic’ is over-used with impunity. The word has become the ultimate goal for any self-respecting product and perhaps the only true accolade society and posterity can offer an object. Though nothing begins life as an icon, once recognised, it transcends its daily struggle for recognition and instead enters a nirvana of endless respect which is borne out through both praise and sales. Yet while the world is full of highly influential and milestone things, not all of them should be called iconic.

To be an iconic product demands multiple layers of recognition (and the oft cited onion simile seems somewhat apt here). But at the least it should demonstrate three basic elements: Firstly a form or design which memorably marks it out from the rest and in most cases is even recognizable in silhouette.  Secondly an innate cultural message that speaks to the masses, and finally the ability to inspire pretenders and further innovation.

Within the world of vintage tech, one such worthy product which springs to mind is the first Sony Walkman (model TPS-L2). Launched in 1979 this little plastic tape player would fundamentally revolutionise the way we engaged with our music and even our own surroundings, it would inspire a decade of copies and forever enter our lexicon as the catch-all term for a personal music device. Sony would go on to sell over 50 million Walkmans and the brand name continues to live on today, but most importantly this player would enter the hearts of a global generation.


Form and Design…………..

From a logistical standpoint the first Sony Walkman was a rushed affair. Once Sony’s co-founders Aiko Morita and Masara Ibuka had committed themselves to design and manufacture such a product, the window for release was suddenly very tight. Recognising their product would appeal to a younger audience, Sony were keen to get their player launched in just a matter of months for the start of the busy summer holiday season. Against the clock it was decided to modify their existing line of compact cassette dictating machines (termed the Pressman) instead of going for a complete redesign from the bottom up. Their latest model the BM-12 seems to have been the starting point, although another (the TCM-600) shares many design features was well.

The BM-12 was unashamedly a cassette recorder intended for professional and journalistic use. In shiny silver it was a crisp and efficient business machine that thus appealed to a very select group. Yet with just a few careful tweaks the designers at Sony were able to re-invent it into a popular and aesthetically balanced icon. I’ve photographed both the BM-12 and the TPS-L2 side by side to let you make your own comparisons,  and the following points are those I feel are probably the most important design choices Sony made…….

  • The addition of the metallic royal blue was a bold choice at the time as it was not a commonly used colour. By the late 1970s most audio devices were predominantly silver with wood trim or plastic coloured white. By contrasting the muted silver and blue blocks of colour, Sony created a very striking machine with clearly Japanese aesthetics. Indeed, this particular tone of blue against a silver (or similar light blue tone) is actually one commonly found in antique woodblock images by some of Japan’s most famous artists such as Hiroshiga. Therefore its use would have been a subtle yet powerful message for those back home about tradition and craftsmanship.

Japanese Art_086

  • Since the BM-12 already had multiple jacks for the mic and headphones, the designers retained the look on the TPS-L2 with dual headphone sockets for ‘him and her’ (or ‘guys’ and ‘dolls’ as the early machines light-heartedly wrote it before changing it to just ‘A’ and ‘B’). It is this element of sharing your listening experience that today seems so quaint, but at the time was probably included to make the jump to solitary musical confinement feel less extreme.
  • The small internal mic in the corner was retained as was the large ‘dictation’ button and these were converted into the infamous ‘Hotline’ feature that allowed the listeners to semi-mute the cassette whilst being broadcast into the other person’s headphones. In reality this was probably an un-necessary feature that was discarded in later incarnations, but at the time it perhaps offered an extra novelty feature to help market the machine.

  • The somewhat fiddly volume wheel on the BM-12 was replaced with split volume sliders. By independently controlling the volume on the left and right earpieces, Sony were clever to subtly highlight that this was a quality stereo not mono player and some of the demonstration tapes that would come free with the machine would include binaural sounds and effects.
  • The record feature and small tape counter were understandably removed and the buttons were tidied up.
  • For the TPS-L2 Sony correctly put increasing effort into the packaging. Compared to the BM-12 which had a dull-as-dishwater brown cardboard box, the 1st wave of Walkman boxes used a simple graphic and similar colour scheme as the machine. While the term ‘Walkman’ had been suggested from the start, the machine was initially given different names for different countries (Stowaway was the Uk incarnation). By 1981 Sony decided to unify the names to just ‘Walkman’ and an image of young roller-skating kids added to the redesigned box.


Speaking for a generation and inspiring pretenders……..

Despite initial scepticism at its launch, the Sony Walkman quickly earned itself a strong reputation among the public and more particularly with young people. In hindsight this should not be surprising as the marketing department at Sony focused specifically on the branding and lifestyle appeal of their new Walkman. Unusually for Sony what they released in 1979 was not a brand new high-tech product, but a stripped back and low-tech one (remember even the speakers and recording capability had been removed). Instead this was a fun product for young people.  Sony’s own advertising played on the young v. old parallel with shots of old traditionally-dressed Japanese folk curiously observing young and happy plugged-in teens. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come, but at a time the sense of musical liberation by ‘tuning out’ obviously hit a popular chord. Punk had made music loud and brash, but now with a Walkman it was also something far softer and more personal as well. This was also the first time ever that people could enjoy a 24/7 soundtrack accompaniment to their lives no matter where they happened to be and to enjoy Stereo listening outdoors. The fact that the Walkman was initially retailed at 33,000 yen was in part to celebrate 33 years of the Sony Corporation, but it also put it firmly within the budget of low income students. This low-price was a gamble that Sony willingly took because until the production could be scaled up, each initial unit sold would actually lose Sony nearly 10,000 yen due to the higher manufacturing cost. However the gamble obviously paid off.

With the success of the first Sony Walkman a whole genre of personal cassette players were born. Some (verging on law-suits) tried to cash in quickly from the look and feel of that original machine. Straight off the bat Toshiba released their own version called the ‘Walky’, and Panasonic created theirs called ‘Go’. This forced Sony to go back to the drawing board in 1980 and release their Walkman II which was both lighter, cheaper and a clear design shift. But the success of the TPS-L2 spurned hundreds of designs from the cool to the bizarre and through the 1980s and 90s Sony themselves would release dozens of new designs ever year just to stay ahead of the competition. The early 1980s were a design conscious time, but despite obvious improvements in size, design, battery life and sound quality, very little really changed for personal cassette players until CD players took over in the mid to late 1980s.

Of course it was also not just the TPS-L2 player itself that changed the industry, but also the headphones created to work alongside it (model MDR-3 series). For several years Sony had been working on a far more discreet set of headphones as the big chunky ones with their spiral cord and over-sized ear protectors had been the de-facto design across the industry for many years. They were fine for high-quality indoor Hi-Fi use, but were cumbersome when used else-where. Therefore it was almost a twist of fate that Sony’s new super-light yet high-quality stereo headphones were ready at the same time as the brand new Walkman. Looking back today, its hard to see that Sony would have achieved the Walkman’s resounding success without them. And the rest is history…………


Japanese Art photo attribution by Leonid Li ; remaining photos

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