Recorded History: The Sony Walkman Turns 40

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The journalists had never experienced anything like it, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Packed into buses headed for Yoyogi Park near Sony’s headquarters in Tokyo, Japan, they knew the electronics giant was excited about a product launch set for July 1, 1979. But what had been handed to them after boarding was confusing.

It was a blue-accented device, made mostly of metal and roughly 6 inches long by 3.5 inches wide. Inside was a standard audio cassette. It could be held in one hand, clipped to a belt, or—more awkwardly—hung around the neck. A pair of compact, foam-encased headphones trailed from the unit to the user’s ears, where it emitted a surprisingly rich stereo sound.

But it had no recording feature like Sony’s Pressman, which media members had used for years to document conversations. And the scene at Yoyogi Park was odd: Dozens of Sony staffers were riding tandem bicycles, skateboarding, and swaying while bystanders looked on, baffled. No one was talking; the product announcement was being piped in to reporters via a recording on the device. Sony dubbed it the Walkman, and it insisted it would revolutionize how the world consumed music.

The assembled media members took in the presentation, returned to the bus, and shrugged. Who was going to wear a miniaturized stereo that cost $200 USD?

Enough people, it turns out, for over 400 million Walkmans to be sold in the coming decades; enough for Sony’s profits to grow so substantially that they could afford to buy a movie studio, Columbia Pictures; enough that city officials would declare them a public nuisance that could result in deadly traffic accidents or ear damage.

Sony had anticipated a need and profited handsomely. But while the company became synonymous with the Walkman, there’s a one asterisk to their story—they didn’t actually invent it.

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Portable listening devices were, of course, nothing new. Transistor radios grew popular in the 1950s by shrinking components to allow for a pocket-sized listening experience. The drawback was that the user was limited to picking up broadcast stations and whatever playlist the programming director preferred. They were also tinny, the earbuds laughably weak next to proper stereo systems. Real, lost-in-the-music moments were reserved for bedrooms equipped with record players and floorboards that could stand up to the adolescent hysteria incited by Elvis or the Beatles.

Masaru Ibuka’s teenage years were decades in the rear-view mirror, but he identified with their passion for music. A co-founder of Sony, Ibuka was disappointed he couldn’t bring a cassette player with him on long, transatlantic plane rides. Why, he asked engineers, couldn’t they develop a device that was small enough to carry around while allowing the user to listen to whatever he or she wanted?

Akio Morita, Ibuka’s partner, agreed, and the two set a deadline: They wanted a product ready for the start of summer vacation on July 1, a marketing opportunity for people exercising or relaxing outdoors. Under a time crunch, Kozo Ohsone, Shizuo Takashino and other developers took their Pressman—a bulky recorder meant for a niche market—and removed the recording mechanism, adding a lightweight pair of headphones and a stereo amplifier. (To create something completely from scratch would not only take more time, it would be more risk: A prototype that broke down would not go over well.)

Morita took their modified Pressman home and listened to it. It was exactly what he and Ibuka wanted, with one exception: His wife was annoyed at the isolating nature of the device. Morita didn’t want Sony to market a “rude” product, so he had his team add a second headphone jack and an orange button that allowed two listeners to talk to each other through a microphone.

Sony’s Pressman evolved into the TPS-L2, a cassette player designed to resemble antique Japanese lacquered boxes. “Walkman” was taken from both Pressman and Superman, a character recently re-introduced to the public eye because of the 1978 feature film. “Walkman” also hinted at locomotion, the idea of breaking free from home stereos and going where you pleased.

Morita and Ibuka thought they had a hit, but the press disagreed. The lack of a recording feature confounded them, and their apathy leaked into the market. In July 1979, the first month Walkmans were on sale, only 3000 units were sold. In a controlled panic, Sony’s marketing department decided that the Walkman experience was so singular that they would have to be aggressive. Japanese celebrities were recruited for print ads; Sony employees rode trains and patrolled busy pedestrian-packed districts on weekends, extending headphones so consumers could listen for themselves. No ad or slogan could really describe the unique experience of cutting the cord from elaborate home stereos. The Walkman had to be worn to be appreciated.

Sony’s assertive plan worked. Twenty-seven thousand units were sold in August, which depleted the company of its initial 30,000-unit production run. Tourists returned to France, the UK and the U.S. with the devices, seeding the company’s expansion plans. By early 1980, the Walkman was headed for America.

Morita had considered calling it the Soundabout in the States, but “Walkman” was already on the lips of early adopters who had heard of or seen the portable device. Sporting a stylish leather cover, it quickly became an urban accessory must-have. Walkmans in New York became as pervasive as potholes, with users acknowledging one another on the street as though they belonged to the same fraternity.

In their first mention of the Walkman on July 7, 1980, the New York Times declared it a status symbol:

Josh Lansing and the young blonde woman had never even met before, but as they passed each other on Madison Avenue the other afternoon, she waved and smiled and he tipped his headphones in salute ... What the two well-dressed strangers first noticed about each other was that they were both possessors of the newest status symbol around town: the Walkman …”It's just like Mercedes-Benz owners honking when they pass each other on the road,” explained Mr. Lansing, whose cassette hung from his Gucci belt.

Andy Warhol told the Washington Post he preferred the sound of Pavarotti over blaring car horns; beaches that had banned radios took no issue with the solitary nature of portables. The soundtrack of life could not only be changed, but muted.

That latter feature was of concern to Woodbridge, N.J., which passed an ordinance in 1982 that banned the Walkman and its knock-offs from anyone driving or riding a bike on a public street, joining nine other states with similar prohibitions. Wearing headphones for extended periods also concerned audiologists, who feared ear damage from constant musical accompaniment to homework, working out, or isolated jobs like toll collecting or taxi driving. Even repair shops chimed in, saying the parts were too tiny to repair and hanging signs refusing service to the Sony elite.

None of this slowed the Walkman’s momentum. The company shipped over 500,000 units worldwide in 1980 and tripled that in 1981. In 1983, the company introduced the WM-10, which was only a third the size of the original. It featured a “drawer" that retracted when the cassette tray was empty. More importantly, it had earbuds that allowed ambient noise to leak in, easing safety concerns. In 1988 they released the WM-505, the first model with wireless headphones, over 12 years before the first Bluetooth headset.

The Walkman featured prominently in Footloose; Marty McFly used it to terrorize the transistor-era of the 1950s in Back to the Future; “walkmans” became a colloquial term for any portable device in the way Kleenex had become the standard declaration for a tissue.

By the time it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 1986, Sony had invented, invaded, and conquered an entirely new consumer electronics space.

At least, that's what they had assumed. The same year they made the OED, the company offered a settlement to Andreas Pavel, who for years had taken issue with the “invention” portion of Sony’s story. A devout music lover, he filed a patent in Milan, Italy in 1977 for something he informally referred to as a stereobelt. He tried courting manufacturers, but Philips and Yamaha weren’t interested. Years later, he took note of the Walkman. A case of communal thinking, Pavel was still peeved his discovery had found success without him, though it was for financial rather than personal reasons. "I don't want to be reduced to the label of being the inventor of the Walkman," he told the New York Times

After two decades of off-and-on court fights, he settled with Sony in 2003. A testament to the Walkman's immense success, the company reportedly cut him a check for eight figures.

Sony

By the late 1980s, the Walkman had grown to accommodate CDs (the Discman) and television (the bulky Watchman). In the 1990s, MP3 devices took up much of their development time, but nothing could anticipate—or compete against—the shift caused by Apple’s iPod in the 2000s. By 2010, Sony announced it would be discontinuing the cassette-based Walkman brand in most territories. Just as Sony users had stamped out transistors and boom boxes in the 1980s to become a societal badge of cool, the iPod’s devotees would settle for nothing less than an Apple.

Cool, of course, is relative. 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy resurrected both the device and the concept of a mix tape, with Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill using the TPS-L2 as an emotional lifeline to his childhood on Earth. Previously trading for around $100 among collectors, the model shot up to nearly $1000 after the movie was released; a rare “Guys & Dolls” version, which labeled the headphone jacks by gender, can sell for nearly $3000. Thanks to Pratt, the Walkman had come full circle.

Ibuka, incidentally, never quite got his wish. After his team scrambled to modify a Pressman in time for his next international flight, he settled into his seat and hit play. Nothing happened. In their rush to find some classical music for Ibuka to listen to, the engineers accidentally grabbed a bunch of blank cassettes.

Netflix's Stranger Things Season 3 Video Is Full of Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed

Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Stranger Things's third season was full of many surprising twists and turns, not to mention some awkward teen romances. While the gruesome Mind Flayer and the evil Russians were no doubt terrifying, the show kept its sweet touch of nostalgia due mainly to the fact that the Hawkins gang is now smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s.

It doesn’t take a keen eye to see many of the series's '80s references, particularly in the latest season. With scenes taking place at the new mall, references from the decade—including Hot Dog on a Stick, Sam Goody, and Back to the Future—are all part of the setting. However, creators Ross and Matt Duffer wanted to pay true homage to the decade, and thus left Easter eggs throughout the season that you likely missed.

Luckily for us, as BGR reports, Netflix has just released a video explaining the hidden references (with the New Coke debate, Mrs. Wheeler’s erotica novel, and Hopper’s Tom Selleck-inspired Hawaiian shirt among some of our favorites).

Check out the full video above and see what you missed!

[h/t BGR]

10 Out of This World Facts About Area 51

Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Robert Heinst/iStock via Getty Images

Though it's officially a a flight testing facility, the Nevada-based Area 51 has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades, and accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not already know about Area 51.

1. Area 51's existence wasn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government until 2013.

Although it was chosen as a site to test aircraft in 1955, the government did not acknowledge that Area 51 even existed until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were released thanks to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who was granted access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.

2. We still don't really know why it's called Area 51.

Out of all the things we don't know about Area 51, Encyclopedia Britannica says that the one for-certain uncertainty about the zone is its name. Like everything else involving the site, the theories are out there: A video published by Business Insider suggests the name stems from the location's proximity to nuclear test sites that were divided into numerically-designated areas.

3. Area 51 is still expanding.

Area 51 has been growing, something which true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Business Insider points out that satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. BI posits that this could mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site—"or this is what they want us to believe."

4. The Moon landings were supposedly faked at Area 51.

One of the bigger conspiracy theories out there not only questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing, but claims it was staged at Area 51. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.

5. The first UFO "sightings" in Area 51 were easily explained.

Unidentified Flying Object UFO
ktsimage/istock via getty images plus

In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane ... unless that’s what they want you to think.

6. Area 51 employees might travel to work via plane.

Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. According to USA Today, employees board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Referred to as “Janet” due to its call sign—which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn't mention any encounters of the third kind.

7. Former Area 51 employees who were sworn to secrecy are opening up about their work there.

Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.

Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.

8. Area 51 employees once took the facility to court over hazardous working conditions.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Turley—a lawyer and professor at George Washington University—was approached by workers from Area 51 who claimed exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste was making them sick. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Turley wrote that the workers "described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as 'London fog' by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care."

According to Turley, "we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]"

9. The best place for UFO-spotting near Area 51 is supposedly by a mailbox.

According to one person who claims to have worked in Area 51 and to have seen alien technology there (whose "claims about his education and employment could not be verified," according to How Stuff Works, which raises doubts about his credibility), there's one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes which is apparently a hotspot for alien action (they're located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin's mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own post.

10. It's impossible to sneak into Area 51 without being spotted—and use of deadly force is authorized if anyone tries to evade security.

Given the intense nature of its secrecy, it comes as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and a stint in the can. The land is patrolled by “cammo dudes,” men wearing camouflage that have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for pesky civilians looking to break into the area. But truth-seekers, beware: Signs placed outside the area warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone looking to sneak onto the property.

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