The creator of our private universe

As the man who says he invented the Walkman fights on for a slice of the profits, Peter Popham analyses its mass appeal

The Court of Appeal yesterday threw out Andreas Pavel's claim to be the father of the Walkman, and with it his attempt to cut himself a slice of Sony's corporate fortune. With this decision, the British leg of Pavel's epic legal battle is probably over (his lawyers have 30 days to decide whether or not to appeal to the House of Lords). But next month battle will commence in the United States.

Pavel, 49, youngest son of a wealthy German industrialist, patented a version of the personal stereo in 1977, two years before Sony launched the Walkman. Pavel's device (see the diagram, right) consists of a sort of Browning belt from which hang the tape player and cases for batteries and cassettes. He claims to have dreamt it up on a walking holiday in the French Alps in 1972. He had prototypes made up by engineers and raved about the "psychological effect" of listening to music on the device. "All of a sudden, everything around you begins to move to the music." He says that he told a Sony employee about his device, and that the idea was stolen from him.

Sony went on to make more than 150 million Walkmans, and is still producing more than a million a month; the device has earned the company at least pounds 3bn, according to conservative estimates. Pavel went on to a life of tireless litigation, exhausting his pounds 1m inheritance in the attempt to prove his point.

The closest he has come to success was when Sony paid him a pounds 50,000 fee to use the so-called Talkline feature, which allows someone to talk to the listener. But further success that would bring him a royalty from Sony's earnings, which could be worth tens of millions of pounds, continues to elude him. The appeal judges supported the opinion of the original trial that Pavel's idea was "obvious" and "lacked novelty", and that his original patent was therefore invalid.

Yet Pavel's lonely and quixotic struggle has drawn attention to a small, humble, technologically insignificant device that sneaked into our lives nearly 20 years ago. It is difficult now to cast ourselves imaginatively into a time when it did not exist. When a poster of the film Withnail & I appeared recently with one of the protagonists wearing a Walkman, it took a while before somebody pointed out that it was 10 years out of time.

Pavel may indeed have devised a personal stereo as early as he claims: there is nothing original or remarkable about the technology it uses. But the belief that such a device could appeal to a vast market was a strictly Japanese one. Its invention and marketing were a triumph - the greatest triumph to date - of Japanese aesthetic values over Western civilisation. The only comparable event was the arrival in Europe in the 1860s of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and the convulsions these brought about in the ideas and techniques of European painters.

The Walkman emerged from the modern Japanese preoccupation with the small, the light and the compact. The phrase in Japanese is keihaku tansho, literally "thin and light, convenient and small", and it encompasses most of the electronics products by which Japan has made its mark on the West. The concepts themselves are rooted in the cramped, congested surroundings of Japanese life, and the need to devise products that will work in such environments. "Miniaturisation and compactness have always appealed to the Japanese," says Akio Morita, the co-founder and former chairman of Sony, who credits himself with inventing the Walkman. "Our boxes have been made to nest into one another, our fans to fold, our art rolls into neat scrolls."

The early products of Morita's company were very different: their first tape recorder, painstakingly copied from an American model, was a monster weighing 100lbs. But as a new face in a Japanese electronics field already dominated by firms such as Matsushita, the company behind brands such as Panasonic and Technics, Sony's only hope of success was to do that most un-Japanese thing - invent. And it did this by developing a nose for products that would fit into Japanese lives a little more delicately than a 100lb tape recorder.

The first sensational success of Sony's keihaku tansho thinking was the transistor radio. The transistor itself was developed in Bell's famously inventive laboratories in the United States. But Bell could see no use for it beyond hearing aids, and was happy to license it to Sony.

The first such radio came on to the market in 1955. So closely did it become identified with Japan that President de Gaulle later derided Japan's visiting prime minister as a "transistor radio salesman".

But the success of the Walkman is more interesting and has a deeper cultural significance than the miniature radio. The transistor was just a big radio made small; the Walkman was a public activity rendered almost completely private. The Walkman meant that for a small price, anyone could temporarily block out the public realm, retreat to their own cave, wherever they might happen to be in reality.

For some it was a liberator, turning long boring train or plane journeys into opportunities for musical ecstasy. For others, though, especially those trapped on Tube trains next to deaf hip-hop enthusiasts, it was a frightening short cut to social autism.

The crucial fact about the Walkman, what led to Pavel's appeal being dismissed yesterday, is that the personal stereo is technologically "obvious" and therefore does not amount to an invention - and that its huge success does not alter this fact. In the judgment's words, "Although the Walkman was a great commercial success, to rely upon that success to support invention is fallacious." In other words, it was a triumph not of technology but of vision.

The genesis of the Walkman has entered the realm of myth. Aside from Pavel's account of simple theft, there are at least three versions of how Morita dreamt it up. According to one, he wanted to listen to music while playing tennis, and instructed his engineers to come up with something that would permit him to do so. In another, he observed Sony's co-founder, Masaru Ibuka, staggering from room to room under the weight of a conventional tape recorder so that he could have music wherever he went, and Morita took pity on him. In the third, it was a question of shutting up the kids' rock music at home.

Whichever is correct, it betrays a peculiarly modern Japanese urge to shut oneself away, beyond the reach of an increasingly pestering, intrusive, rackety world. Love hotels, karaoke boxes, capsule hotels and hand-held televisions all testify to the same need; visual reality headsets are perhaps the closest the concept has been taken to perfection.

The Walkman was always a more readily accepted proposition in the Japanese city, where shutting oneself away has long been the preferred method of resistance to a world of tightly packed strangers. This is why Japanese train passengers blithely read pornographic comics, or sleep, or pick their noses, oblivious to those around them. The Walkman simply made the solitude more complete, more easily attained.

But in the West it posed problems: not just noise, but also a simmering sense of insult, indignation that people should excommunicate themselves from the community so simply and completely. What if there were an accident, if somebody were hurt or in need of directions? The man with the Walkman was morally absent.

The anger which that absence prompted explains the cheer that greeted the tabloid story of the commuter who severed his noisy neighbour's Walkman cord with scissors. You may dispatch yourself to oblivion, the story said, but you are quite readily reeled back in again. Both the anger and the snipping would have been unthinkable in Japan.

But gradually over the past 17 years we have become inured to these insults to our sense of community; our sense of community itself is diminished as a result. The absent presence of the Walkmen is now taken for granted, as an alternative (and eminently understandable) way of existing in society, part in, part out. In this subtle way, we truly have turned Japanese.

The case against the personal stereo

Although the personal stero has enhanced person freedom and allowed people to listen to music on the move, it has also had drawbacks, mainly through alleged damage to hearing and the invasion of other people's personal space.

November 1992: the British Tinnitus Association calls for health warnings on personal stereos.

December 1992: a fed-up commuter travelling from London's Liverpool Street station to Norwich is applauded by fellow travellers after he cuts through the headphones cord of a teenage traveller. Lizzie King, a passenger, spoke for her companions: "The pounding beat had been going on for 20 minutes. He was just gobsmacked. He sat there staring at the severed cables."

3 September,1993: launch of the Sound, Noise and Hearing campaign that warns children of the risk of ear damage and tinnitus as a result of listening to loud music. David Malvern, a Reading University specialist and co-author of the education pack issued by the Health and Safety Commission and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, says: "At two-thirds' volume a Walkman is equivalent to something between operating a chainsaw and a garden strimmer." At full volume, a personal stero is equivalent to listening to a road drill with no ear protection.

18 September, 1993: a coroner warns of the dangers of personal stereos when he records a verdict of accidental death on Lee Reynoldson, a 20- year-old jogger who ran in front of a car while listening to music on his headphones.

1 September, 1994: Andrew Dunn, a student who refuses to turn down the volume on his personal stereo when asked to do so by fellow train passengers, is fined pounds 200 by magistrates in York. WPC Fiona Halliday told the court: "It was the typical personal stero sound, tinny and brassy."

18 March, 1996: France prepares to ban personal stereos that exceed 100 decibels following medical evidence which found that listening to loud music through earphones was producing "a generation of deaf people".

Great patent wars of the past

1873-1880: between 1868 and 1900, America issued 756 patents on designs for barbed wire. One barbed device sparked seven years of litigation when three pioneer barbed-wire inventors each applied for patents within four months of one another.

1971-1973: John Atanasoff, an American engineer, was named the true inventor of the electronic digital computer when the computer giant Honeywell unearthed his work while preparing its defence against patent infringement charges from its rivals Sperry Rand.

1985-1992: a Worcestershire farmer, Alan Brazier, received a seven-figure sum when he beat Hoover in court over a patent infringement. Vax, a revolutionary carpet-cleaner conceived by Brazier in 1968, is now an pounds 85m business.

1987-1990: invented 350 years ago, the corkscrew was at the centre of acase between Screwpull makers Hallen Company and Brabantia. Screwpull was patented in America in 1978, but is not very different from the invention of the Birmingham engineer Sir Edward Thomason in 1802. Hallen lost the case.

1995-1996: Breton Yves Renaut designed an oyster-opening device only to find his fortune delayed by litigation between oyster-cultivators to whom he sold a licence to exploit the patent and the subcontracted opener developers Fizz.

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