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10 Portable Facts About the Walkman

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On June 22, 1979, Sony invited a group of journalists to Yoyogi Park in Tokyo and handed each of them a small blue and silver device attached to headphones. After they pressed play, an audio presentation informed them that the international electronics conglomerate was releasing a portable cassette player called the Walkman. As they listened, models on roller skates, skateboards, and tandem bicycles circled through the park with Walkmans on their waistbands and new lightweight earphones atop their heads.

Less than two weeks later, on July 1, 1979, the Walkman hit store shelves in Japan. It would popularize the compact cassette developed 15 years earlier by Dutch manufacturer Philips, help define the ’80s, and usher in a new era of device-enabled disconnection. The Walkman and the company behind it are profiled in John Nathan's book Sony; here are a few things you might not have known about the device.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A SONY CO-FOUNDER’S DESIRE TO LISTEN TO OPERA ON LONG FLIGHTS.

Sony cofounder Masaru Ibuka officially retired in 1976, but he continued to advise the company after his departure. In February 1979, he made a personal request of executives: an easy-to-carry device that would allow him to listen to operas on cassettes during international flights. It turned out to be a pretty simple request to fulfill: Kozo Ohsone, general manager of the tape recorder division, adapted a Pressman—a recording device that Sony marketed to journalists—by replacing the recording mechanism with a stereo amplifier and circuitry.

2. SONY HOPED THE WALKMAN WOULD MAKE UP FOR THE FAILURE OF BETAMAX.

In the ’70s, Sony introduced its Betamax tapes, video cameras, and players. Though popular with film production companies for their sound and picture quality, Betamax products were knocked out of the consumer market by the VHS tape, a product of JVC (the Victor Company of Japan). By 1980, VHS had more than half of the market share, and Betamax kept losing ground until it represented less than 10 percent of the market in 1986. VHS tapes could hold 120 minutes, compared to the 60 minutes of the original Betamax tapes, and JVC entered into savvy licensing agreements with American, European, and Asian electronics companies to create VHS-compatible products. Sony never successfully licensed Betamax technology, and its failure was a humiliating blow to the company.

Sony’s chairman and other cofounder, Akio Morita, received a Walkman prototype soon after Ibuka got his, in the spring of 1979; he used it while golfing and was amazed by the quality of the sound. He thought the device could redeem Sony and rushed it into production for release that summer. This meant there wasn’t much difference between the first Walkmans on the shelves and the prototype made for Ibuka.

3. IT WAS MARKETED TO TEENAGERS.

Morita wanted the new device to be marketed to teenagers; he had seen teens lug radios and boomboxes to beaches and up mountains. This meant offering it at a price much lower than that of the Pressman—which retailed in the U.S. for $400 (in 1979 dollars)—even though it contained mostly the same technology. Morita’s imagined retail price for the Walkman was the equivalent of $125 in Japanese Yen. At that price, Sony needed to produce and sell 30,000 Walkmans to turn a profit—a hefty first order for a new product, especially at a time when compact cassettes were a fraction of the prerecorded music market and seen mostly as a professional tool to record speech.

The teen angle also meant that Sony had to produce new, more stylish and lightweight headphones, improving on the earmuff-like ones available at the time.

The initial ad campaigns emphasized youth and sportiness: young people on roller skates and bicycles, earphones on their ears and Walkmans on their belts. One advertisement said it all: a young, pretty girl with a Walkman wearing futuristic earphones walking past an elderly monk wearing a clunky, old ’60s-style headset.

4. ITS ENTRY INTO FOREIGN MARKETS WAS DELAYED, MAKING IT ONLY MORE DESIRABLE.

Two months after the July 1 rollout, Sony sold out of the initial production in Japan. The company intended to introduce the Walkman to foreign markets in September 1979, but scrapped that plan in order to dedicate production to meet Japanese demand. This only made the Walkman more desired in other countries. Tourists and airline crews searched them out and brought them home. Whenever Sony executives went abroad, colleagues badgered them about obtaining Walkmans.

5. THE WALKMAN HELPED THE CASSETTE OVERTAKE VINYL AS THE BEST-SELLING MUSIC FORMAT.

In 1979, the year of the Walkman’s release in Japan, recorded music sales were about $4 billion in the U.S., half of which went to vinyl, a quarter to compact cassettes, and a quarter to 8-tracks, according to Mark Coleman's book Playback. The Walkman made its U.S. debut in June 1980, and just three years later, in 1983, cassettes overtook vinyl as the top format. By the time Sony stopped manufacturing the Walkman portable cassette players in 2010, the company had sold around 385 million units.

6. THERE’S A SOCIOLOGICAL TERM CALLED "THE WALKMAN EFFECT."

In an essay that may seem either quaint or prophetic in the age of smartphones, Japanese professor Shuhei Hosokawa accused the Walkman of altering the urban landscape, from one in which experiences were shared and spontaneous into one where individuals were preoccupied and autonomous in thought and mood. In a 1984 article for the journal Popular Music, entitled "The Walkman Effect," Hosokawa, of the inter-university International Research Center for Japanese Studies, wrote that the “listener seems to cut the auditory contact with the outer world where he really lives: seeking the perfection of his ‘individual’ zone of listening.”

7. IT HELPED PEOPLE EXERCISE.

The Walkman coincided with the exercise craze of the ’80s, which saw the Western middle class, newly confined to office jobs, take to the gym and fitness classes. “[A]lmost immediately, it became common to see people exercising with the new device,” Richard James Burgess wrote in The History of Music Production. “Appropriate personalized music eases the boredom and pain of repetitive exercise.”

8. IT RULED THE PORTABLE TAPE PLAYER MARKET.

Nearly every consumer electronics company released a portable tape player in the ’80s, most of which undercut the Walkman in price. Yet because of brand power, the Walkman was unbeatable. A decade after its launch, it retained 50 percent of the market share in the U.S. and 46 percent in Japan despite costing about $20 more than the average personal tape player.

9. BY 1990, THERE HAD BEEN 80 WALKMAN MODELS.

For a decade, Sony created new redesigned and specialized Walkmans, including water-resistant, solar-powered, and double-cassette-deck models. By 1990, 80 varieties had gone to market.

10. THE BRAND NAME WAS SCRAPPED FOR CD DEVICES BUT REINSTATED FOR LATER TECHNOLOGY.

In 1979, the year the Walkman quickly went from prototype to cultural sensation, Sony president Norio Ohga commissioned a joint task force with Philips to create a commercially viable digital audio disc, which became the compact disc. Ohga championed the CD and was sideswiped by the company cofounders’ enthusiasm for the Walkman, its instant success, and the resultant surge in the cassette market.

But Sony slowly rolled out the compact disc in the ’80s, and by the end of the decade, CDs had overtaken cassettes as the most popular format. Because the Walkman brand had become so associated with tapes, Sony used the term Discman for most of its portable CD players.

Meanwhile, Sony continued manufacturing Walkmans, at a reduced capacity, until 2010, when it manufactured and shipped the last order of cassette players under the name. (The company still licenses the name to Chinese manufacturers of tape players, though.) The company has used the Walkman name for some of its MP3 players and cell phones to date.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

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This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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