The inventor of the cassette tape, Lou Ottens, has passed away, according to De Telegraaf. He was 94 years old.
Ottens started working at Philips in 1952, where he eventually came up with the idea of the cassette tape after becoming head of the company’s new product development department in 1960. Fed up with the old reel-to-reel tape system, which consisted of two separate reels on a bulky device passing the film from reel to the next (like old-timey film projectors), Ottens decided to shrink the concept and put the reels into an enclosed device that was easier to manipulate and transport.
In 1963, the first cassette tape made its debut at an electronics fair with the slogan, “Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!” The idea was quickly copied by other companies, but in different formats. From there, Ottens made a deal with Sony to globally distribute a standard cassette size using the Philips patent. The cassette dominated the ‘70s and ‘80s, becoming one of most common formats for prerecorded music. To date, more than 100 billion cassette tapes have been sold worldwide. Ottens also developed the CD, which again became a Sony-Philips standard and sold more than 200 billion to date, according to Dutch News.
The cassette tape became so prominent in popular culture that many books and films were made about the history of it. In 2016, Ottens appeared in the documentary Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, which also featured rock veterans like Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, Ian MacKaye, and other musicians who released their early music on cassette tape. The documentary is a heartwarming, nostalgic look at the history of the cassette tape and why the format is still around today. In fact, cassette tape sales more than doubled in 2020, according to New Musical Express.
If you’re like me, you have many memories of making mixtapes with your friends, recording songs off the radio, winding the film back into the case with a pencil, and figuring out if you put tape over the little square holes at the top of the cassette, you could turn it into a recordable cassette.
And for those of us who remember the transition from cassette to CD to the original iPod, remember those “dummy” cassettes with the 3.5 mm plug? When my friends and I got our first cars, they did not come with a CD player, but many of us had iPods. The way we played music from our iPods in the car was with those cassette adapters. The early 2000s were all about adapting new tech to work with old tech, but thanks to Ottens’ invention, I have so many good memories from those days and earlier.
Ottens retired in 1986, but was often asked if he was proud of his inventions. “I have no pride metre,’’ Ottens said in an interview with NRC.nl in 2018, pointing to the team effort it took to create both the cassette and CD.
“You’re not a nostalgic person are you?” Ottens was asked during an interview for Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.
“No,” Ottens responded. “The only thing I’m nostalgic about is the people I have been able to work with. That’s a fine kind of nostalgia.”