HARVARD HERO MOMENT #38: A throwback to a childhood love – The Walkman

Fiona Bates

08 Jul 2020

I have a confession to make: I wasn’t a cool kid. The bright pink specs and keen-bean seat at the front of the classroom gave that away. I probably didn’t have the best taste in music either, Jason Donavon, Kylie Minogue… Am I giving my age away?! But however questionable your music tastes are, if you’re a millennial like me, you’ll remember your first Sony Walkman. Your own music, that no-one else could hear, with you on-the-go. Especially for you. Yes, personal audio may be an absolute given in the modern world, but for a couple of decades it felt like one of the newest frontiers in tech. Sony's Walkman line will always be an iconic brand of personal audio. And like many technologies in our Harvard Hero Moment series, it was the first of its kind.

Can I get a rewind?

Back in the 80s, chunky vinyl records were still standard way of listening to music, and had been for many years. It was going to take real innovators to radically unroot vinyl’s strong position. Consumers had to be given something they didn’t even realise they needed: portable music. Sony founders Masaru Ibuka and Akio Morita wanted to listen to music while traveling for business – and they felt consumers would too. They were right. Sony built more than 200 million Walkmans up until March 2010. The Walkman – originally the “Sound-About” in the US – played much smaller cassettes and could fit in your pocket. It was simple, it was affordable, but most importantly, it was portable. A dream addition to my seven-year-old box of tricks to keep me entertained on car journeys.

Sounds of silence

The Walkman was more than a new device. It totally changed listening habits. It also ushered in the concept of creating private space in public with technology such as noise cancelling-headphones. It was without doubt the springboard for innovation and reinvention in the space; paving the way for CD players, minidiscs and of course, the iPod. There’s more about that thousand-song library in John’s Hero Moment here. As for Sony though, it's roots in a string of 80s and 90s iconic devices now make it one of the longest-running audio brands going. And me? I still have the same questionable music taste, which is why those around me are probably happy it’s confined to my ears alone. It may not be through a Walkman these days – but those fond childhood memories still make me smile. I can’t get you out of my head.