A near-death experience for a Sony Walkman

The 1980s version of a portable boombox

“Cool” gadgets in high school define the “cool” kids, and nothing compared to the status symbol of having a Sony Walkman in the early 1980s.  Gen X loved jammin’ to their mix tapes on Walkmans much like millenials obsessed over their iPhones and thousand-song playlists twenty-five years later. Yet, there is always those that “have” and those that “have not.”

Like any technology, new products are usually pretty expensive.  Students from wealthier households set the technology trends, while the rest of us wish for the same, first-wave opportunities.  I remember looking at my Walkman friends with envy, and relished my brief time with the wondrous  device when a friend would share a song or two with me between classes.  I enjoyed the quick listens, but nothing compared to my joy the day a friend’s Walkman broke.

“It fell out of my top locker,” she said.  “Here–you can have it.”  She passed the Walkman into my hands as I trembled with excitement.  I knew it didn’t work, but I finally had my very own Sony Walkman!

I tried the device when I got home after school and confirmed the Walkman did not play.  Nevertheless, I carried it everywhere, enchanted with Walkman ownership despite the operational shortcomings of my particular unit.

A few days later I had it with me when I arrived at an after-school job at a local manufacturer.  “What’s that?” asked an adult machinist.  I handed the device to him to look at as I explained how I came to be in possession of it.

“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered.

Turning the Walkman over in his hands, we both noticed the screws holding the Walkman’s case together.  A minute later and we were looking at the exposed innards of the Walkman that connected to a battery compartment.  It wasn’t hard to figure out what had caused the Walkman to break, a nondescript circuit board connected the batteries to the rest of the device.  The circuit board was cracked, so the Walkman was not receiving any power from the batteries.  The machinist soldered the broken connection and reassembled the unit.  Voilà!–My Walkman started to play.

As I look back on this experience, I’m struck by the simplicity of the solution and yet my reluctance to have initiated the dissection of the Walkman myself.  I was lucky to have had the acquaintance of someone who wasn’t afraid to tackle the problem.

A few years ago, the National Academy of Engineering published a terrific paper titled “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering.” The study indicated that kids associate doctors with healing and teachers with learning, but did not necessarily draw a connection between a device like a Walkman and an engineer.

The Walkman had appealed to my imagination as a “magical” device until I saw its guts exposed and lying on workbench.  Then, I saw it as something designed by humans that could be fixed by humans.  I made the leap from Walkman user to engineer and would never see (or hear!) things the same way again. Listen to the music!

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