Today everyone is walking around wearing headphones or earbuds as they listen to their iPods. We take the idea of "personal listening" and "portable music" completely for granted. But there once was a time when these were completely unknown concepts. The transition occurred in the 1980s.
The change started with the release of the Sony Walkman, and two things about it were revolutionary. First, Sony managed to shrink a cassette player down to a size that you could fit in a pocket. This was surprising by itself, but it was also cool because people were making their own music cassettes by mixing together songs that they taped off different albums. These custom cassettes were the first play lists, and they were perfect for a Walkman.
The second thing was the headphones. In 1980 there were two kinds of headphones -- little plastic "earphones" that sounded horrible, and heavy, bulky headphones that covered each ear with a cup the size of a cereal bowl. Sony changed all that by creating a pair of headphones that had great sound but weighed less than two ounces. Sony was able to do that because of an invention called the samarium-cobalt magnet. Without these tiny, powerful magnets, the Walkman headset would have been impossible.
When the Walkman first came out, it was expensive. In 1981, I won a Walkman in a raffle, and it had a list price of $300. It was very cool -- it could both play cassettes and record using a pair of microphones built into the case. There was also a button you could press that would lower of the volume of the music and let you hear the "outside world" through the headphones. This saved you from having to take off your headphones -- it was ridiculous, sure, but still very cool. I gave that Walkman to my sister for Christmas that year. Prices came way down a year or so later as other manufacturers entered the fray.
No one uses cassette tapes much any more, and CDs are on the way out. Everything has gone digital and you can download all your music from the Internet. But the Walkman showed us for the first time what it was like to have portable, personal music, and people loved it.
To learn more about cassette tapes and cassette players, see How Tape Recorders Work.
We'll look at some television-related technology next: VCRs, camcorders, cable TV and video game consoles.