How This Electronics Juggernaut Got Its Start in a Bombed-Out Department Store

The story of a world war, a department store, and a plucky transistor radio.

A version of this article originally appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine with the headline “Garage Brands.” Subscribe today

Before Sony was a multi-billion dollar, multi-national company with over 100,000 employees, it was a tiny electronics company of some 20 employees. It took its very first tentative steps in a windowless room on the third floor of Tokyo’s Shirokiya Department Store, a building still damaged from bombing during World War II.

Founded by Masaru Ibuka, Akio Morita and a handful of employees in the mid-1940s, Tokyo Tshushin Kokyo (Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corporation) initially focused on radio repair — and a prototype electric rice cooker that never hit the market.

In 1955, the struggling crew crafted the first of what would become countless hits: a transistor radio called the TR-55. The plucky teal radio was a notable first in a whole host of ways. It was the first transistor radio to be produced inside Japan for one. But it was also the first product to bear the company’s new, westernized name.

While the company would still operate under the name “Tokyo Tshushin Kokyo” until 1958, the TR-55 bore then name “Sony” for years leading up to the transition .A combination of Sonus, the Latin word for “sound,” and “Sonny,” a common American slang term for “boy” at the time, the moniker was designed to put Americans at ease considering their general inability to pronounce the company’s original name.

He could not have dreamed that six decades later literally millions of people would be gaming away on Sony PlayStations, which the company has now sold north of 629 million of, a number that is only going to grow with the PlayStation 5 on the horizon.

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