How Sony, Sharp and Samsung got their names
24th Apr 2008 | 14:43
Plus Apple, LG, Canon, Panasonic, JVC and Toshiba
When it comes to the world’s biggest tech brands, most of us would be able to pick out Apple, Samsung, Sony and others as our favourites. But would you buy a TV from Tokyo Tsushin Kokyo, or a DVD player from Tanaka Seizo-Sho? If the answer’s no, then you should read on... We’ve picked nine of the world’s biggest brands so you can discover how they made their names
This Korean colossus is a relative newcomer to consumer tech, starting the Samsung-Sanyo Electric Company as recently as 1969. Its roots go back to 1938 though, when founder Byung-Chull Lee started up a dried fruit, vegetable and fish export business. By the late 1970s, Samsung’s interests included petrochemical, construction, textile and ship-building industries, the company owned a string of hotels and was exporting colour TVs.
A decade later it was also making planes, dabbling in space technology and making the world’s smallest video recorders. Today Samsung is vying with Sony for title of world’s biggest consumer electronics maker and spends £0.85 billion a year on R&D. Samsung is the Korean name for ‘three stars’ - which is handy, as that’s the review score many of the company’s products get ;-)
Somewhat surprisingly Sony is actually younger than its Korean arch-rival, appearing in 1946 as Tokyo Tshushin Kokyo (aka Totsuko) Its first product was a rice cooker. The Sony brand - which is a conflation of Sonus, the Latin word for sound and Sonny (as in ‘young boy’) - first appeared in 1955. Totsuko became Sony Corporation three years later.
Early successes were the TR-55 transistor radio, TV5-303 portable TV and, of course, the TPS-L2 Walkman. Sony’s had something of a chequered past: it's enjoyed notable successes with CD, DVD and the PS3; but it’s just as famous for its flops - MiniDisc, DAT and Betamax. It also likes to provoke the ire of its customers - firstly with 2005’s root-kit disaster and then a year later with 2006’s exploding laptop battery epidemic, which saw 8 million Sony-made Li-Ion batteries being recalled.
When Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak launched Apple Computer in 1976, its choice of name was obvious - Jobs was a massive Beatles fan, and so he named the company after the Beatles-owned record label Apple Records. That decision quickly backfired when The Beatles’ holding company Apple Corps took Apple Computer to court over the use of the name - the beginning of a 30-year battle that ended with Apple Computer buying the Apple brand from The Beatles in 2007.
Mac OS 7 famously featured a system sound whose name arose as a result of a 1991 legal battle that forbade Apple Computer from having anything to do with music. Apple’s legal department decided that the name of one OS 7 sound ‘chimes’ was too musical-sounding. Apple engineer Jim Reekes tried to change the name to Let It Beep, but eventually settled on Sosumi (‘so sue me’), explaining to Apple’s lawyers that it was a Japanese word and had nothing to do with music at all.
The Japanese LCD TV giant took its name from one of its first ever products - the Ever-Ready Sharp propelling pencil (later the Ever-Sharp pencil), which made its debut in 1916. The company was originally named Hayakawa Brothers Shokai, partly after Tokuji Hayakawa who had invented the pencil in 1915. Sharp first moved into consumer electronics in 1925 when the company began mass-producing crystal radios - the first Japanese manufacturer to do so.
Famous for iPhone-baiting touchphones, as well as fridges, microwaves and TVs, LG is the abbreviated result of the merger between two different companies - Lucky, which made household products and GoldStar which fashioned cheap consumer electronics. The GoldStar name eventually disappeared in 1995, when the company was renamed LG Electronics, partly as the result of a push upmarket.
Surprisingly Canon isn’t a company name at all, just a brand name of Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory, which started making cameras in 1933. The first cameras were sold under the name Kwanon - the name for the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy.
Precision Optical Instruments registered the name Canon as a trademark 1935, partly because this Japanese word can mean criterion, standard or scripture - meanings that reflected the company’s brand aspirations. Obviously Kwanon and Canon are similar words, so it made sense to change from one to the other... giving us the the leading camera company that we know today.
The company that saw off Sony in the great video format war of the 1970s owes its roots to US firm the Victor Talking Machine Company, which established a subsidiary in Yokohama in 1927.
The Victor Company of Japan (aka JVC) started off making phonographs (vinyl turntables) before eventually making its name selling colour TVs and, of course, VHS video recorders. JVC’s corporate website claims that one of its engineers, Kenjiro Takayanagi, was also the first person in the world to project an image on to a cathode ray tube.
First used in the US in 1955, Panasonic is actually a brand name for electrical goods made by Matsushita Electric Industrial - the Japanese tech giant that first appeared in 1918. Matsushita chose the name Panasonic because it was unable to use its existing National brand in the Americas - there were simply too many other companies using ‘national’ as part of their name.
The National brand continues to be used in Japan although it, along with the name Matsushita, are expected to bow out this October. That's because current bosses are corralling the companies businesses under a single name with Panasonic - meaning ‘all’ and ‘sound’ - being the obvious choice.
Quite possibly the world’s oldest consumer electronics company, Toshiba started life in the late 19th Century as two separate companies - first in 1875 as telephone engineering firm Tanaka Seizo-Sho, and then with light bulb maker Hakunestu-sha five years later.
In the following years both companies changed their names again - first Hakunestu-sha became Tokyo Denki (aka Tokyo Electric Co) in 1899, while Tanaka Seizo-Sho morphed into Shibaura Engineering Works. These proved to be the foundation for the Toshiba name when the companies merged to form the Tokyo Shibaura Electric company in 1939.