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Nobutoshi Kihara, Sony Engineer, Dies at 84
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Published: February 27, 2011
Nobutoshi Kihara, the engineer known as “the wizard of Sony” for his ingenuity in developing products, like Japan’s first tape recorder and transistor radio, and later the Betamax videocassette recorder, that helped propel the company’s rise from the ashes of war to become a global electronics giant, died on Feb. 13. He was 84.
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Howard Stringer, chairman of the Sony Corporation, announced the death in an internal memorandum. Mr. Kihara is believed to have died in Tokyo, Sandra Genelius, a Sony spokeswoman, said.
“Sony’s audio and video technologies are only in existence today because of the technical foundations laid down by Mr. Kihara,” Mr. Stringer wrote.
Mr. Kihara, whose innovations helped win more than 700 patents, led in developing products like the company’s first success, a magnetic tape recorder and the magnetic tape to go with it. Other products included the transistor radio and television, one of the world’s first videotape recorders, the Betamax, eight-millimeter video movies, the digital still camera known as Mavica and a catalog of smaller and lighter variations of these products.
Though Mr. Kihara was widely known as “Mr. Walkman,” another engineer actually created the world’s first commercial personal stereo system. But Mr. Kihara’s earlier innovations provided the backbone for the Walkman. Akio Morita, one of Sony’s two founders, had asked Mr. Kihara, then a top engineering executive, to find a way for him to listen to operas on long-haul business flights.
It was Mr. Kihara’s relationship with Sony’s other founder, Masaru Ibuka, that rained magic. Projects usually began with a rambling, almost telepathic conversation in which Mr. Ibuka was careful not to offend Mr. Kihara by issuing a direct order. Often as soon as the next day Mr. Kihara would delightedly show Mr. Ibuka a prototype of the concept they had discussed, John Nathan wrote in “Sony: The Private Life” (1999).
“I loved making him happy,” Mr. Kihara said. In turn, Mr. Ibuka referred to Mr. Kihara as “a godlike person” in one of his books.
Nobutoshi Kihara was born in Tokyo on Oct. 14, 1926. His family had a background in engineering, and as a boy he enjoyed dissecting the motor of his model train locomotive. To pay university tuition, he retrieved discarded radios and fixed them.
In 1947, as he was preparing to graduate from Waseda University in Tokyo, he responded to an employment advertisement on a bulletin board placed by the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Company, which would become Sony.
Mr. Kihara’s exuberance about electronics — and experience repairing and building radios — wiped out concerns that his background was in mechanical, rather than electrical, engineering. His first major product was the development of a tape recorder: he heated ground iron in a frying pan to collect the ferric oxide he needed to make magnetic tape.
A shortage of court stenographers created an immediate market for the recorders. He kept developing smaller and smaller models.
Mr. Ibuka came up with the idea of using transistors in radios. Mr. Kihara produced one, and in August 1955 the first transistor radio in Japan went on sale. An American company called Regency, using Texas Instruments transistors, beat Sony to the market by a month, making Sony’s the second in the world.
Sony’s transistor radio was immediately profitable. Mr. Kihara then found ways to use transistors in television sets and tape recorders, making miniaturization and lower power consumption easier.
He led Sony’s advance into videotape recorders and then to videocassette recorders. His Betamax lost out to the VHS, made by Matsushita (whose best known brand is Panasonic), which was cheaper and could fit more programming on a tape.
Mr. Kihara, who is survived by his wife and three children, always insisted that Betamax’s technology was superior to that of rivals who had used it as a model. “My blood boils,” he said of VHS’s victory over Betamax.
Mr. Kihara once said he could close his eyes and imagine new products.
“Anyone can find out the common sense things, and my role is not to teach common sense,” he said in a 1994 oral history for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering “My message has always been to break through what is common sense and common knowledge and make the impossible possible.”