Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, has died at 94. A sad day for audiophiles, Ottens was also credited as having played a major role in the development of the CD. The Dutch engineer’s career revolutionised the world of audio twice, with more than 100bn cassette tapes and 200bn CDs sold worldwide.
Born on 21 June 1926, Ottens showed showed an early interest in engineering, building a radio as a teenager through which he and his parents could receive Radio Oranje during Germany’s wartime occupation of the Netherlands. He equipped the device with a directional antenna that he called a “Germanenfilter” because it could avoid the jammers used by the Nazi regime.
After the War, he achieved an engineering degree and started working in Philips, working his way up to head of product development in 1960. He quickly created Philips’ first portable tape recorder before moving on to his biggest success: frustrated by the large, clumsy reel-to-reel tape systems of the time, Ottnes sought to create a cassette tape that would be small and simple enough to fit in the inside pocket of his jacket. In 1963 the first tape was presented to the world at an electronics fair in Berlin with the tagline “Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!” On the 50th anniversary of its creation, he told Time magazine that it was a “sensation” from day one.
He always retained his sense of wonder, describing his process as, ‘We were little boys who had fun playing. We didn’t feel like we were doing anything big. It was a kind of sport.’
In 1972, Ottens began his next major innovation project. A collaboration between Philips and Sony resulted in the CD in 1980. As Ottens saw it in 1982, ‘From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete.’
Both led to revolutions in how we listen to and share music, making it far more accessible for the average listener, as opposed to the open reels of quarter-inch tape that preceded them.
Cassettes allowed mixtape culture- bootleg recording from radio, curation, and trading of homemade compilations- to flourish, seeding many musical subcultures and giving teenagers in love the perfect outlet to express themselves.
Cassettes have even experienced a recent resurgence in popularity, with major artists including Lady Gaga, Tame Impala, The 1075 and Dua Lipa releasing music on them. Sales of cassettes in the first half of 2020 increased by 103% compared to the same time period the previous year, and Ottens’ considerable legacy continues to be felt.