Before The Walkman, There Was The Stereo Belt

Before The Walkman, There Was The Stereo Belt

The Sony Walkman was a revolutionary product, and during the '80s and beyond, any personal stereo system—cassette players, CD players, Victrola vests—became known as a "walkman," whether it was made by Sony or not. The Walkman was not, however, the first personal stereo system. Historians generally give that honor to the Stereobelt, a German invention that first came out before the Walkman in the 70s. 

Like the name suggests, the Stereobelt was a belt. It was not a single compact device that could fit into an oversize pocket. Instead, one compartment on the belt stored the cassette, another compartment worked as a soundboard, two other compartments held four batteries each, and still other compartments served as microphones and hit you with bass vibrations. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, Quicksilver wears a Stereobelt, even though the movie takes place in 1973, before the device's 1977 patent.

Yes, the Stereobelt got a patent, and in fact the patent gave inventor Andreas Pavel ownership over the entire concept of a personal stereo system. So when Sony debuted their Walkman in 1979—and did not pursue a patent on the idea—Pavel sued them for infringing on his idea. For a little while, this worked out for Pavel. By 1986, Sony agreed to give him a small cut of their German profits.

Pavel wanted more, and he kept suing. Now, things did not go so well. With their entire global profits on the line, Sony defended themselves more aggressively. The idea of a personal stereo system was too broad for anyone to patent, they said, which was why they hadn't patented it themselves. Scientists had been tinkering with portable audio systems for decades—to call any device the first one is just a matter of marketing. 

Sony themselves had produced a portable tape player and recorder called the TC-50 back in 1968. A decade before the Walkman, and before the Stereobelt as well, they'd sent the TC-50 into space. The astronauts on Apollo 11 carried TC-50s with them, primarily for recording audio logs but also for playing personal mix tapes. The Moon defense worked: The court sided against Pavel, making him pay Sony's legal bills and even invalidating his original patent. 

The man retained a patent in some regions, however. So years later, in 2004, to avoid years more of being sued in many separate countries, Sony actually settled with him after all. We can find little info on the deal, as though it's just a tiny footnote in this already settled story, but it was an undisclosed eight-figure sum, enough to last him the rest of his life, so that's definitely a happy ending for Andreas Pavel.

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The Walkman intersected with culture in all kinds of ways:

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