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Ubiquitous Walkman Celebrates First Decade

June 21, 1989|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — The technology behind the Walkman portable cassette player might never have developed without these words from Sony Chairman Akio Morita: "Turn down that music!"

Morita, seeking to soften his children's blasting stereos, asked his development team for something that would let the kids rock out without deafening dad. Working from a model developed by Sony founder Masuru Ibuka, model TPS-L2 rolled off the assembly line a year later--the first Sony Walkman, unveiled July 1, 1979.

In the decade since, the Walkman and its imitators have become ubiquitous, with tiny headphones appearing on millions of heads worldwide--traffic-bound commuters, long-distance runners and house-cleaning parents as well as their rock 'n' rolling kids.

"The Sony Walkman has in fact changed the way the world listens to music," said Tom Harvey, president of Sony Consumer Audio Product Co. "It's changed our life styles."

As the Walkman marks its 10th birthday, it has become a cultural phenomenon, as American as Toyotas or sushi. Highlights of the Walkman's first decade include:

* Walkman: A Space Odyssey. A specially adapted Walkman was sent into orbit attached to astronaut (and U.S. Sen.) Jake Garn, recording the sounds of his bowels for posterity.

* Illegal Walkman. Teachers at the University of Illinois were warned of students using Walkmans to play "oral crib sheets" during tests.

* Walkman: The Movie. Michael J. Fox, blasting an Eddie van Halen guitar solo through a Walkman, convinced his '50s-bound father there was life on other planets in "Back to the Future."

* The Royal Walkman. Princess Diana owns a gold-plated number that she plays while relaxing in Buckingham Palace.

The Walkman wasn't an immediate sensation. Initially it was called Soundabout in the United States, Stowaway in the United Kingdom, Freestyle in Sweden and Walkman in Japan and other world markets.

But Morita argued for uniformity, and sales in the United States, 37,000 units in 1979, took off after the Walkman name was adopted in May, 1980. From then on, the personal stereo cassette deck was up and running.

"Retailers told us, 'You guys are absolutely out of your minds. It doesn't even record, and it costs $200. It's never going to go anywhere'," Harvey said. "The next thing I know, we've got back orders for 1 1/2 years."

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