Akio Morita, the co-founder of Sony and inventor of the Trinitron television, the Betamax videotape recorder, magnetic recording tape and the Walkman portable music player, was born 93 years ago this weekend.
Morita was a true innovator, in the rare mold of Steve Jobs at Apple. His unique vision resulted in products that changed the world. His vision was unique. Sony has struggled to regain the momentum of his impact since his death at age 78 in 1999.
Morita was born in Nagoya, Aichi, Japan. His family was involved in sake, miso and soy sauce production in the village of Kosugaya. He was the oldest of four children and his father trained him to take over the family business.
However, Morita found his true calling in mathematics and physics, and in 1944 he graduated from Osaka Imperial University with a degree in physics. He was later commissioned as a lieutenant in the Imperial Japanese Navy and served in World War II.
During his service, Morita met his future business partner, Masaru Ibuka. On May 7, 1946, Morita and Ibuka with about 20 employees founded Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo Kabushiki Kaisha (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation, the forerunner of Sony). Morita’s family invested in the company during the early period and was the largest shareholder.
In 1949, the company developed magnetic recording tape and, in 1950, sold the first tape recorder in Japan. In 1957, it produced a pocket-sized radio (the first to be fully transistorized), and in 1958, Morita and Ibuka decided to rename their company Sony (derived from “sonus” — Latin for “sound.”)
Since the early Sony radio was slightly too big to fit in a shirt pocket, Morita made his employees wear shirts with slightly larger pockets to give the radio a “pocket-size” appearance.
In 1960, Sony produced the first transistor television in the world. In 1973, the company received an Emmy Award for its Trinitron television technology. In 1975, it released the first Betamax home video recorder, a year before the VHS format came out.
From that Sony brought out the Portapack, the first over-the-shoulder portable video production system, the 3/4-inch U-matic videocassette recorder, and later, the Betacam one-piece video recording system.
In 1979, the Walkman was introduced, making it the world’s first portable music player. In 1984, Sony launched the Discman series which extended their Walkman brand to portable CD products.
Morita moved his entire family to the United States in 1963 to learn American culture. He built a valuable network by continually socializing and giving parties during the week, a habit he maintained throughout his career. Morita followed art and music, and was a sports fanatic.
In his 60s, he took up wind surfing and scuba diving and started skiing to ensure good exercise through the winter. He loved to water-ski and even crafted a water-resistant microphone on a handle, connected by a wire on the ski rope to a speaker on the boat so he could relay instructions to his wife, Yoshiko.
To simply have a good time, he would invent and perfect products. The Walkman is just such an invention. Morita watched as his children and their friends played music from morning until night. He noticed people listening to music in their cars and carrying large stereos to the beach and the park.
Sony’s engineering department was generally opposed to the concept of a tape player without a recording function (it would be added later), but Morita would not be denied. He insisted on a product that sounded like a high-quality car stereo yet was portable and allowed the user to listen while doing something else — thus the name “Walkman.”
Morita suffered a stroke in 1993, during a game of tennis. On Nov. 25, 1994, he stepped down as chairman of Sony. On Oct. 3, 1999, Morita died of pneumonia at the age of 78.
It was Morita’s contrary vision that is so lacking among today’s inventors and manufacturers. Morita, along Steve Jobs and a small number of others, had it. But it’s a very rare commodity. We tip our hat to a true genius and innovator — a man whose work affected everyone in today’s television industry.