Long before iPods and other digital music players became a fashionable way to carry thousands of songs on a single device, the Walkman dominated the market for portable music devices. In fact, while many portable music players have been generically described as a "Walkman," the name Walkman is a trademarked brand name of Japanese electronics maker Sony Corp. The company dramatically changed the way that we listen to music when it introduced the TPS-L2 Walkman in 1979.
Before the Walkman, people were limited to listening to music on a home stereo (using speakers or headphones) and in their vehicles. Portable tape recorders were used mainly by professional journalists to record and play back live conversations; eventually, these devices become a popular way to play music on analogue compact audio cassettes. In 1978, Sony introduced a personal tape player, the TC-D5, but it was bulky and expensive, costing about £650. Sony's honorary chairman, Masaru Ibuka, had used the TC-D5 on aeroplane trips but found it difficult to carry on a plane. He directed the company's tape recorder division to create a smaller, portable tape player.
Sony's tape recorder division was struggling to develop successful products. The company was undergoing reorganisation at the time and it was rumoured that the tape recorder division would be consolidated into another unit. The head of the division, Kozo Ohsone, turned out the design of the TPS-L2 in just a few months. He suggested calling the player a "Walkman," which was a variation of Sony's Pressman, a tape recorder. A year earlier, Sony engineers had designed headphones weighing less than two ounces and believed the lightweight headphones would appeal to younger consumers. The Walkman was introduced to the public on June 21, 1979.
Priced at £130, the TPS-L2 was primarily a music player; it did not have recording capabilities. Sony engineers used the same basic case and mechanical parts as the TCM-600 cassette recorder, removing the record key, tape counter and erase head. The microphone socket and recording circuitry were also removed. The device had two headphone sockets. The Walkman had a feature called "hot line" which, when the orange button on the top of the machine was pressed, faded down the sound in the cassette and increased the internal microphone output, allowing two people to listen to music and talk to one another.
By modern standards, the first Walkman did not have advanced sound capabilities or technology. However, Sony was able to market the device effectively as a personal music enjoyment experience and sales of the TPS-L2 soon began to soar. The Walkman helped pave the way for other portable music technologies, including the iPod some 20 years later. Sony sold about 385 million Walkman devices worldwide. In 2005, PC World described the Walkman as one of the 50 greatest gadgets of the previous 50 years.