IN THE business world, Akio Morita was a superstar. He wasn't a banker, a broker or a hired gun CEO. Morita was not one of those captains of industry who exist solely to turn a profit for shareholders, although he coined in billions for them. Nor did he plan to be an entrepreneur. Physics was his calling, electronics his art. Most corporate executives are as interchangeable as their companies' products. But old Akio flogged us decent stuff. For Akio was the co-founder and honorary chairman of the Sony corporation. Akio Morita gave the world the Walkman.
If you don't understand what a force for good the Walkman is, you obviously don't get out much. The Walkman nullifies the boredom and noise involved in getting from one place to another. It keeps the world out and cocoons you with sound. The device's earliest critics feared it would discourage social contact and ultimately cut us off from one another. They have, I am glad to say, been proved right. And it's largely thanks to one man.
Akio Morita, the traveller's unlikely saviour, was born in 1921 to a sake-brewing dynasty near Nagoya, Japan. As the eldest son, he was raised to take over the family business, but his fascination for physics and machinery intervened. He found building his own radio and phonograph too easy a challenge, and by his teens was attempting to make a magnetic wire recorder. It was an idea he returned to when in 1946, after a war spent working on technology for the Japanese navy, he created the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company - later Sony - along with Masaru Ibuka.
No factory could be found willing to supply the fledgling outfit with the necessary precision-made wire. So they turned to tape recorders instead, assembling them from scratch and selling them to courts, schools, colleges and radio stations. Morita had no idea how to make the tape itself. Plastic was unavailable. He started off by using cellophane, then strips of paper. His team would cook up ferric oxide in a frying pan, mix it with lacquer, and paint it on by hand with a brush made of bristles from a raccoon's underbelly.
Sony avoided products that other, bigger corporations could already provide. Morita's next major project was the transistor radio. The little gizmo was only just too wide to fit into a standard men's shirt pocket, so Morita got his salesmen to wear shirts with specially enlarged pockets to slip it in and out of during demonstrations. Readers who went on beach holidays in the 60s and 70s can thank Morita for the tinnitus inducing tranny racket they endured on a daily basis.
The Walkman put an end to that kind of foolery. It was for your ears only, it sounded brilliant and it was built outlast your tape collection (my own Walkman IV, a four-battery behemoth dating back to the early Eighties, finally gave up the ghost last year.) You could move about in your own little capsule of sound. It took a while for folk to learn not to shout or sing while wearing one. Some churlish souls still crank up the noise to the point where it spills out into their neighbours' ears. These people should be beaten on the soles of their feet with rubber hoses, but you may find it simpler just to put your own headphones on.
It's since been claimed that the personal cassette player was ripped off, that Sony never gave due credit and reward to its true inventors. Like all conspiracy theories, it's impossible to disprove. And an idea like the Walkman must have occurred to plenty of people before someone with the means and will to make it real happened across it. But Akio Morita's track record was remarkable enough to make his own version of events perfectly plausible. Ibuka complained that being both discreet and a music lover, he was sick of having to lug around a ghetto blaster and huge pair of ear-clamps. Morita talked the initially unenthusiastic company into rendering the whole tzimmis small enough to carry on your belt.
He didn't run naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” That would hardly have been his style. His style was one of austere benevolence, and it turned him into a management and corporate guru. More than any other individual he epitomised the thinking behind Japan's post-war economic success. But more importantly, thanks to his life's work of making gadgets smaller, better and more fun, many of us will never again have to listen to pointless strangers. Now all we need is to get our friends to shut up.
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