You may have seen the news: Sony Corp, the developer of the once-ubiquitous personal cassette player known both by brand name and generically as the Walkman, has announced it will discontinue manufacture of these units, see here. I won't go into the history and timeline of these units, since you can read a pretty good version here. Note that although Sony subsequently used the term "Walkman" for their CD and other player technologies, it is culturally associated with the cassette tape player.
The news from Sony is no surprise, of course: after all, who still listens to music or any audio using Philips tape cassettes? Cassettes were superseded by portable CD players and then obsoleted by solid-state memory MP3 players, which are smaller, lighter, use less power, and hold thousands of songs (compared to the one-hour tape limit of the Walkman.) Sure, there are various "adapters" for those who still have old tape cassettes laying around, but that's not much of a growth market.
But the Walkman-style of personal player did transform how we listened to—or heard—music in public spaces. There was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when the boom box was the way to take your music with you, while also irritating everyone around you, if declaring your territory was your thing. In effect, many of those toting boom boxes said, as they cranked up the volume, "what's my space is mine, and what's your space is mine, too." Eventually, many localities passed noise various ordinances restricting the audio output of boom boxes to a maximum of between 80 or 90 dB at a distance of a few feet. While those ordinances are still on the books, they sure do seem a lot less necessary now.
I am sure there have been hundreds of grants for sociologists to opine on the boom box as a cultural phenomena and statement. But who can forget the wonderful scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Kirk, Spock and crew are on a 1970s San Francisco bus along with a punk rocker and his blasting boom box, to the dismay of everyone? After Kirk politely asks the rocker to tone it down and is brushed off, Spock reaches across, and performs the Vulcan nerve pinch on the rocker—rendering him unconscious, of course--and then turns off the offending box, to the applause of the bus passengers. That sums up the public boom box situation.
The Walkman changed the dynamics of listening to music (or spoken word) because it was another major step in the "personalization" and individualization of just about everything. You had personal computers, desktop publishing, personal audio, personal phones, personal TV, personal everything. Interestingly, one unverifiable story is that the chairman of Sony, while championing the Walkman, insisted it have two earphone jacks since he couldn’t imagine anyone would want to listen to the music alone. We know how that turned out.
I'll defer providing any further treatise on the social and cultural impact of the Walkman, and look at what it meant to engineers and our industry. While non-techies may have looked at it as a clunky combination of parts, to me the Walkman was a triumph of electromechanical engineering. I took many of them apart (after they had broken, of course) and always marveled at their watch-like internal design and assembly, combined with low cost and relative ruggedness. It taught our industry quite a lot about high-volume manufacturing of complex, low-cost, mass-market products. It drove miniaturization in design and packaging, as later-generation units were only a tiny bit larger than the cassette they supported and employed ever-cleverer mechanisms for handling the cassette itself and its internal tape.
Further, the Walkman made the a household name of Dolby noise reduction, a very clever, all-analog technique which reduced tape hiss and transformed magnetic tape into a very good medium for music. Dolby, in turn, was an early pioneer in the idea of licensing their IP (before that term was widely used) and collecting a small royalty (rumored to be a few cents) for each unit sold with their technology, rather than manufacturing and selling their own branded tape player.
I'm not going to pine over the passing of the tape-based Walkman: times and technologies change, and each approach has its virtues and vices. But it's interesting to stop and think of what the Walkman represented to both culture and technology, as we hurtle forward.
What did (or does) the Walkman and Philips tape cassette mean to you? ♦