Thirty years ago, Sony began selling a device which would not be an easy sell today. It was a portable music player with a battery life of around three hours, with which you had to choose the music you wanted to listen to before setting off on your journey, could only play tracks in a set order, and ran a good risk of literally chewing up your media.
At the time, though, the launch of Sony’s Walkman was revolutionary: the portable cassette player allowed people to listen to music on the move without having to carry a boombox on their shoulder. Or, in the case of my family, it kept my sister occupied on car journeys without the rest of the family having to sit through Enid Blyton audiobooks for the thousandth time.
The BBC marked the anniversary by asking a 13-year-old boy to replace his mp3 player with a Walkman for a week. There’s some interesting insight to how the device has aged but, at the ripe old age of 32, I must admit the article exposed cultural differences beyond technology.
The boy complained that “the weight of the unit is enough to haul down a low-slung pair of combats”, which only made me wonder why he didn’t invest in a belt. He also noted the nostalgic response of a teacher, but revealed the incident came about because “In some classes in school they let me listen to music.”
Among the other problems the child encountered, which are of course hilarious to anyone who’s ever operated a Walkman, and perfectly understandable to anyone else, was that he took several days to realize the tape could be turned over, and that he mistook the ‘Metal’ switch for a genre-specific form of a graphic equalizer. Still, youthful ingenuity isn’t dead yet: the child created his own shuffle function by holding down the rewind button and releasing it at a random point.
Sadly one person who won’t be cashing in on the anniversary is John Young, the designer of the Retropod. It’s pictured above and if you thought it was simply a Walkman, take another closer look. It’s actually a customized carrying case for the iPod:
Unfortunately Young had to stop selling the product after Sony’s lawyers complained that consumers “will be misled into thinking that Sony is backward in its design of products and is going away from miniaturization, as the size of the tape player housing is quite large by today’s standards.”
For British users, the anniversary also brings back memories of one of the most unlikely tributes to consumer electronics, Cliff Richard’s Wired For Sound:
After 30 years, one question does remain unanswered about the device. How come when my sister and I got identical Walkmans one Christmas, hers lasted for a decade and mine was defunct within months?