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Everything is impossible until it's not: July edition

Long before you carried an entire music library on your phone, one simple device changed portable music forever: we bring you the Sony Walkman.


Everything is impossible — until it isn’t. At Strike, we’re looking back on disruptive moments that changed the world. From technology that has shaped our lives to feats of human strength and resilience that were never thought possible, every month we’ll bring you a moment in history that changed everything.

Today, listening to music when we want, wherever we want, is something we take for granted. It’s hard to imagine that if you wanted a portable and reliable way of listening to music 50 years ago, then your only option was a transistor radio. The transistor radio, introduced in the mid-1950s, was clunky and could never replicate the sound quality of a vinyl record played on a home stereo. But on July 1st, 1979, all that changed. This July, some 43 years later, we celebrate a disruptive moment that revolutionised, not just the world of personal electronics, but the way we listen to music today — we give you the Sony Walkman.

A feat of imagination

While the Sony Walkman was a revolutionary imaginative feat, it wasn’t an entirely new concept. Portable tape recorders, such as the Sony Pressmen, were already available to a niche market, however these only allowed the user to record audio rather than listen to it on-the-go. Sony co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, had a different vision.

Ibuka wanted a portable, lightweight device that would allow him to listen to cassette tapes while travelling. Ibuka often took the company’s portable stereo tape recorder, the Sony TC-D5, with him on international flights, but he found the device too bulky, so he set about trying to create something more efficient. 

While the first Sony Walkman wasn’t quite as streamlined as the iPhones and iPods we’re accustomed to today, it still rightfully goes down history as a design classic.

The prototype for the Walkman was originally a modified version of the Sony Pressman – engineers simply removed the Pressman’s recording circuit and replaced the speaker with a stereo amplifier. The device had a distinctive blue-tone and was made mostly from metal. It was roughly 6 inches long and 3.5 inches wide, and it was designed to fit in the user’s hand, be clipped onto a belt or (slightly less comfortably!) hung around the listener’s neck. 

The development phase of the Walkman only took 4 months, and Sony engineers had the product up and ready in time for it to hit the shelves just before the summer holidays.

Sony took action and quickly embarked on an innovative marketing campaign – which took the Walkman directly to the public. "

Taking it to the streets

Despite the Walkman’s promise, it didn’t make the initial splash that was predicted. It took the public a while to get their heads around the Walkman and the press were also confused too – commenting on the Walkman’s lack of recording device. In the first month, only 3,000 units were sold. 

Sony took action and quickly embarked on an innovative marketing campaign – which took the Walkman directly to the public. Sony representatives were recruited onto the streets of Tokyo, where they approached members of the public and gave them the chance to try the Walkman for themselves. The campaign proved hugely successful and 27,000 units were sold in August. It wasn’t long before France, the UK and the US cottoned on, and by the early 1980’s the Sony Walkman hit America. 

The company went from strength to strength, shipping over 500,000 units worldwide in 1980 and triple that the year after. The Walkman quickly became a household name, and it was immortalised in iconic movies like Footloose and Back to the Future. By the late 1980’s the Walkman had evolved from the cassette tape to accommodate CDs in the form of the Discman, and even TVs in the Watchman.

By the 2000s, however, the fad for the Walkman gave way to Apple’s iPod, and by 2010, Sony discontinued the cassette-based Walkman in most territories. 

While cassette-tapes and CDs may seem like a thing of the past, the portable listening device is still alive and kicking today. The Walkman is one of Sony’s great success stories, but it has also changed the way we consume music for good — giving us the freedom to listen to music wherever we want.

We're always looking to dream bigger and find ways to make the impossible possible. Next month, we'll be back with another moment that changed everything.