How Sony Got Started

Akio Morita was born into a wealthy family which regularly bought all the latest electric gadgets. His father’s purchase of an electric phonograph triggered his interest in electrical things.

So intense became this interest that it interfered with his academic studies, and he came close to flunking out of school. Morita was at Osaka University during World War II, passing out to become a navy technical officer. In the navy, he met Masaru Ibuka. After the war, Ibuka, with seven staff, set up a company in a burned out department store in Tokyo.

The company’s first product was a convertor which allowed people to pick up short-wave broadcasts on existing AM receivers. Morita then joined the company, called Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering, and the rebuilding of the store forced the company, now 20 strong, to move to new premises in a dilapidated wooden shack with a roof so leaky that Morita had to put up an umbrella over his desk when it rained.

They were making replacement parts for domestic radios and phonographs, but Ibuka and Morita had set their hearts on making a magnetic audio recorder. Tape was not available, and they experimented with paper and cellophane covered with magnetic materials cooked in a frying pan which led to the use of ferric oxide tape. The company produced a recorder in 1950. It was expensive and early sales were to the Japanese law courts which had a shortage of stenographers. They wracked their brains about how to make the recorder cheaper. In 1952 Ibuka travelled to the US and came back enthused about Bell Labs’ invention of the transistor.

In 1953, strongly against the wishes of MITI, the Japanese ministry for foreign trade, Morita travelled to the US to buy a licence to make transistors. Morita’s initial impression of America was bemusement. “Why”, he wondered, “did Japan go to war against such a big country?”

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