To the New York City cop, the sight was all too familiar: a jaywalker with telltale headphones, endangering life, limb and traffic flow as he obliviously boogied across 59th Street to the sound of his 10-ounce Sony Walkman cassette player.
The cop was just in a glaring mood, not a ticketing one, so Akio Morita didn’t have to explain he was the inventor of the Walkman and no, he wasn’t a wise guy and yes, as a matter of fact, he had also helped develop the transistor radio. “I was so busy doing the go-go, I didn’t even notice the policeman,” explained Morita, 60, Sony’s co-founder and chairman.
Morita admits there’s a tendency for the Walkman to shut out the real world, and he ordered a redesign so the Walkman earphone doesn’t cover the whole ear and block out, say, sirens. But he insists, “Walkman doesn’t isolate people—it makes them happier.” Seeking to allow his three grown music-loving children to enjoy stereo sound outdoors, Morita in 1979 ordered Sony’s engineers to develop light headphones wired to a compact cassette tape player. He tested prototypes at his 26-room, 200-speaker manse in Tokyo’s Shibuya area, and in July 1979 released 30,000 of the gadgets in Japan. “Kiddingly I said, ‘I will give up my chairmanship if we don’t sell 100,000 sets by the end of the year,’ ” he recalls. “I am still chairman.” In fact, Sony has sold 1.5 million of the players worldwide and Morita predicts sales will reach 2.5 million a year by mid-1982. The various models list from $89.95.
Some U.S. dealers still take orders specifying 30-day waits. But Morita is already coveting Third World markets where, he says, “People far from civilization can now enjoy stereophonic sound. My dream is to have Walkman disco parties in the jungles.”
A physics grad from Osaka Imperial University who helped establish the Sony empire on $500 in 1946, Morita doesn’t wear his Walkman at work—”I’m too busy telephoning.” But he’s plugged in on airplanes and while skiing (he’s developed earmuff headphones). Reports that he created Walkman for his own use on the tennis court are false, says Morita, an intense competitor if nothing else: “I’m not good enough to wear a Walkman while playing and still win.”