Saturday, April 12, 2008
WHO INVENTED THE WALKMAN?
That's him pictured above.
His name is Andreas Pavel.
He was born in Germany and at the age of six moved with his family to Brazil, where he grew up.
Now 59, this man turns out to have invented — and patented — what became the Sony Walkman.
Pavel initially called it the "stereobelt."
The first time he tested his portable personal cassette player and headphones was in the woods in St. Moritz, Switzerland, with his girlfriend — in 1972.
Sony started selling the Walkman in 1979 and for the next two decades fought Pavel in court after he accused the company of stealing his invention without properly compensating him.
In 2003 Pavel and Sony settled for a payment said to be "in the low eight figures," which I'd guess to be between ten and twenty million dollars.
The Walkman sold for about $200 ($450 today) when it debuted and Sony's sold zillions of them.
Considering that Sony has probably made hundreds of millions of dollars in profits on the device, I'd say Sony's payment to Pavel amounts to no more than a rounding error in their accounts book.
Larry Rohter brought this fascinating story to light in the December 17 New York Times; it follows.
An Unlikely Trendsetter Made Earphones a Way of Life
In the late 1960's, Andreas Pavel and his friends gathered regularly at his house here to listen to records, from Bach to Janis Joplin, and talk politics and philosophy.
In their flights of fancy, they wondered why it should not be possible to take their music with them wherever they went.
Inspired by those discussions, Mr. Pavel invented the device known today as the Walkman.
But it took more than 25 years of battling the Sony Corporation and others in courts and patent offices around the world before he finally won the right to say it: Andreas Pavel invented the portable personal stereo player.
"I filed my first patent a complete innocent, thinking it would be a simple matter, 12 months or so, to establish my ownership and begin production," he said at the house where he first conceived of the device.
"I never imagined that it would end up consuming so much time and taking me away from my real interests in life."
In person, Mr. Pavel seems an unlikely protagonist in such an epic struggle.
He is an intellectual with a gentle, enthusiastic, earnest demeanor, more interested in ideas and the arts than in commerce, cosmopolitan by nature and upbringing.
Born in Germany, Mr. Pavel came to Brazil at age 6, when his father was recruited to work for the Matarazzo industrial group, at the time the most important one here.
His mother, Ninca Bordano, an artist, had a house built for the family with a studio for her and an open-air salon with high-end audio equipment, meant for literary and musical gatherings.
Except for a period in the mid-1960's when he studied philosophy at a German university, Mr. Pavel, now 59, spent his childhood and early adulthood here in South America's largest city, "to my great advantage," he said.
It was a time of creative and intellectual ferment, culminating in the Tropicalist movement, and he was delighted to be part of it.
When TV Cultura, a Brazilian station, was licensed to go on the air, Mr. Pavel was hired to be its director of educational programming.
After he was forced to leave because of what he says was political pressure, he edited a "Great Thinkers" book series for Brazil's leading publishing house in another effort to "counterbalance the censorship and lack of information" then prevailing.
In the end, what drove Mr. Pavel back to Europe was his discontent with the military dictatorship then in power in Brazil.
By that time, though, he had already invented the device he initially called the stereobelt, which he saw more as a means to "add a soundtrack to real life" than an item to be mass marketed.
"Oh, it was purely aesthetic," he said when asked his motivation in creating a portable personal stereo player.
"It took years to discover that I had made a discovery and that I could file a patent."
Mr. Pavel still remembers when and where he was the first time he tested his invention and which piece of music he chose for his experiment.
It was February 1972, he was in Switzerland with his girlfriend, and the cassette they heard playing on their headphones was "Push Push," a collaboration between the jazz flutist Herbie Mann and the blues-rock guitarist Duane Allman.
"I was in the woods in St. Moritz, in the mountains," he recalled.
"The snow was falling down. I pressed the button, and suddenly we were floating. It was an incredible feeling, to realize that I now had the means to multiply the aesthetic potential of any situation."
Over the next few years, he took his invention to one audio company after another - Grundig, Philips, Yamaha and ITT among them - to see if there was interest in manufacturing his device.
But everywhere he went, he said, he met with rejection or ridicule.
"They all said they didn't think people would be so crazy as to run around with headphones, that this is just a gadget, a useless gadget of a crazy nut," he said.
In New York, where he moved in 1974, and then in Milan, where he relocated in 1976, "people would look at me sometimes on a bus, and you could see they were asking themselves, why is this crazy man running around with headphones?"
Ignoring the doors slammed in his face, Mr. Pavel filed a patent in March 1977 in Milan.
Over the next year and a half, he took the same step in the United States, Germany, England and Japan.
Sony started selling the Walkman in 1979, and in 1980 began negotiating with Mr. Pavel, who was seeking a royalty fee.
The company agreed in 1986 to a limited fee arrangement covering sales only in Germany, and then for only a few models.
So in 1989 he began new proceedings, this time in British courts, that dragged on and on, eating up his limited financial resources.
At one point, Mr. Pavel said, he owed his lawyer hundreds of thousands of dollars and was being followed by private detectives and countersued by Sony.
"They had frozen all my assets, I couldn't use checks or credit cards," and the outlook for him was grim.
In 1996, the case was dismissed, leaving Mr. Pavel with more than $3 million in court costs to pay.
But he persisted, warning Sony that he would file new suits in every country where he had patented his invention, and in 2003, after another round of negotiations, the company agreed to settle out of court.
Mr. Pavel declined to say how much Sony was obliged to pay him, citing a confidentiality clause.
But European press accounts said Mr. Pavel had received a cash settlement for damages in the low eight figures and was now also receiving royalties on some Walkman sales.
These days, Mr. Pavel divides his time between Italy and Brazil, and once again considers himself primarily a philosopher.
But he is also using some of his money to develop an invention he calls a dreamkit, which he describes as a "hand-held, personal, multimedia, sense-extension device," and to indulge his unflagging interest in music.
Recently, he has been promoting the career of Altamiro Carrilho, a flutist whom he regards as the greatest living Brazilian musician.
He is also financing a project that he describes as the complete discography of every record ever released in Brazil.
Some of his friends have suggested he might have a case against the manufacturers of MP3 players, reasoning that those devices are a direct descendant of the Walkman.
Mr. Pavel said that while he saw a kinship, he was not eager to take on another long legal battle.
"I have known other inventors in similar predicaments and most of them become that story, which is the most tragic, sad and melancholic thing that can happen," he said.
"Somebody becomes a lawsuit, he loses all interest in other things and deals only with the lawsuit. Nobody ever said I was obsessed. I kept my other interests alive, in philosophy and music and literature."
"I didn't have time to pursue them, but now I have reconquered my time," he continued.
"So, no, I'm not interested anymore in patents or legal fights or anything like that. I don't want to be reduced to the label of being the inventor of the Walkman."