Happy birthday, Mr. Walkman

One of the amusing aspects of society’s current interest in nature and personal fitness is to walk through a quiet forest in the city parks system (Kin Kanyon and the forest area along the river near Heritage Ranch come to mind) and be surrounded by the beautiful trees and mossy undergrowth, to see fit, happy people striding or jogging through — with earbuds firmly planted, listening to music as they go.

One of the amusing aspects of society’s current interest in nature and personal fitness is to walk through a quiet forest in the city parks system (Kin Kanyon and the forest area along the river near Heritage Ranch come to mind) and be surrounded by the beautiful trees and mossy undergrowth, to see fit, happy people striding or jogging through — with earbuds firmly planted, listening to music as they go.

You wonder if it’s possible to experience a natural area at all under those conditions, but that’s progress.

That kind of progress has made it possible for billions of people to share this planet, barely cognizant of each other’s existence, being surrounded by a cocoon of sound. This is not thanks to the iPod or the MP3 player, however. These are just the latest versions of an old concept.

Instead, we can thank the great game of golf, and a man who stuck to an idea while the world laughed at him.

Masaru Ibuka was a wealthy Japanese businessman who loved golf and classical music. He wondered if it would be possible to enjoy both at the same time.

Ibuka’s life is part of popular culture’s history now, but the legend has it that Ibuka was the one the world laughed at, when he predicted that everyone on Earth could have their own personal radio, small enough to carry in a pocket or purse and cheap enough to be universally available. He was speaking, of course, about the transistor radio, which made rock ’n’ roll, the ’60s and all the rest of that era possible.

Until then, radio required vacuum tubes, and they were anything but portable or personal.

In the early 1950s, the radio was the largest and most expensive piece of furniture most families owned, and the thought of them being small enough to carry, and cheap enough for teenagers to own, was laughable.

But Ibuka, one of the founders of Sony, made millions churning out cheap small radios to teenie-boppers everywhere.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to be able to select his own music while he played golf.

Phillips had invented the tape cassette in 1963 and released the technology free to anyone who wanted to make them.

Doing that was a brilliant idea; being free, Phillips’ invention had no rivals in the marketplace (except the Sony eight-track, but that’s a different story), and soon most of the music in the world was being copied and played in their format — which hasn’t really changed that much since.

In 1979, Sony engineers took the Phillips-built cassette and put it in a player small enough to allow a gentleman to listen to a Bach concerto while lining up a putt.

In a couple of years, everyone on Earth seemed to be carrying a Sony Walkman, or one if its innumerable knockoffs.

Now, at the Walkman’s 30th anniversary, you can carry more music than anyone could possibly keep track of, on something small enough to balance on your pinkie fingernail.

Because of Ibuka and his engineers and salespeople, the world is united in music.

Our poets and singers have driven the evolution of popular culture until it seems to have become almost too fast to watch.

And we are insulated, cocooned in the electronic noise in our heads, so that probably not one young person in 10 can distinguish a robin from a sparrow by its song alone. They simply never hear it.

But at least we still have a few forests and if we pull out our earbuds, we’d hear their music, too. Ibuka would probably approve.

Happy birthday, Mr. Walkman.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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