The Original iPod…in 1979

We had a question at quizzo this week about a device that was invented in 2001 and had sold 300 million copies, but which looked eerily similar to a device that was invented in 1979 by Kane Kramer. The answer is of course the iPod. Here’s a bit of the backstory to that question.

You fans of The Wire surely remember the scene where DeAngelo explains that the guy who invented the Chicken Nugget isn’t rich, but working in a basement for Mr. McDonald for minimum wage. Well, his tale of Mr. Nugget is similar to that of Kane Kramer. Kramer was the 23 year old inventor who, in 1979, came up with the concept of the mp3 player. In fact, he built a working model at that time. But like the computer and Charles Babbage, there was very little technology at the time to support his invention. He could have stored 3.5 minutes of music on the device. He was unable to get the money keep his patent, which Apple later scooped up and used to help create their iPod. Kramer is none the richer, despite the fact that he’s the father of one of the most popular devices of the past decade. Here’s some more info from

Kramer came up with the idea for a pocket-sized, portable solid state music player with a friend, James Campbell. Kramer was 23, Campbell 21. The IXI System had a display screen and buttons for four-way navigation. In a report presented to investors in 1979, the IXI was described as being the size of a cigarette packet. Is this sounding familiar yet?

Back in 1979, a memory chip would store a paltry three and a half minutes of music. Kramer fully expected this to improve, and confidently foresaw a market for reliable, high quality digital music players which would be popular with both consumers and the record labels. It could actually be argued that he was still ahead of Apple after the firat iPod went on sale — that had a hard drive and Kramer had moved onto flash memory years earlier.

Much has been made of Apple somehow “stealing” the technology. But the patent did what all patents do, whether used or not. It lapsed, and whether Apple took the idea from there or from somewhere else, it was all perfectly legitimate. In fact, when Apple was suing (and counter-sued by) in 2006 it cited the invention as “prior art” to dispute Burst’s patents. Apple even called Kramer in to give evidence.

But anyone can dream up a magic futuristic gadget. That’s where James Campbell came in. Campbell was an electronics whizz and between them the men came up with four prototypes. According to Kramer’s website, a fifth, pre-production unit actually went on sale at the APRS exhibition at Earls Court, London.

Here’s some more cool stuff from Kramer’s pitch to potential investors. This was written in 1979:

Record albums and/or singles issued by recording companies are fed in digital form into a computerised Central Data Bank. This data bank is connected by telephone lines to all retailers. The computer holds this digital information and upon receipt of coded instructions from retailers terminal, will transmit the requested music instantaneously to the terminal, where it is then programmed onto a blank IXI CHIP. It calculates and bills the retailers account, splits the relative apportionments of PRS, Artists Royalties, writers and record companies share, all in a matter of seconds.

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