• Rose Smith

Remembering Lou Ottens, the Inventor of the Cassette

Photo Source: Flickr

Cassette tapes are an important part of music and music recording history. The cassette revolutionized the spreading of music. It was an affordable and compact way to store music. Between making playlists through mixtapes or bands using tapes to promote their work, the influence of the cassette cannot be underestimated. On March 6th, 2021, the inventor of the cassette, Lou Ottens, passed away at the age of 94 in his home in the Netherlands (CNN). It is important to take the time to remember his contributions to music history through learning about the history of the cassette and Ottens's role in taking the cassette tape from concept to reality.

Before cassettes, audio storage was expensive and unwieldy. Magnetic tape recordings for audio were invented in 1945, but reel-to-reel recordings were large, expensive, and often required training to use (Kodak Digitizing). The only other alternative was storing sound on vinyl, but one couldn't really take vinyl on the go. The Philips company set forth to try to make audio recording more compact and accessible to consumers (Southtree). In the late 50s, Phillips had come out with the first portable reel-to-reel recorder, allowing one to take a tape recorder on the go. However, the company didn’t just stop there.

Lou Ottens (1926-2021)

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lou Ottens joined Phillips in 1952 after receiving his structural engineering education from the prestigious Technical University in Delft. By the late 50s, he was the head of the product development department. His and his department’s goal was to make a compact magnetic tape, a cassette that could fit in your pocket (NBC DFW). Ottens used a small, wooden block as the model size to aspire to. The final product was released in 1962, and the format was released for the United States in 1964. Otten’s pushed for Phillips to license out the format for free so that cassettes could become the worldwide standard (NPR). Phillips honored that request, and as a result, the popularity of cassettes began to skyrocket. In the mid-seventies, cars started to add cassette players to their dashboards, and in 1979, the Sony Walkman was invented, allowing people to listen to their cassette tapes as they walked around (Legacybox). While this seems relatively inconvenient or limiting in comparison to listening to music on your phone, it's important to remember that this piece of technology was the first of its kind. We didn't have a way to listen to music on the go before. Over the course of time, cassettes became the medium to replace LP vinyl records. Between 1963 and 1988, over 300 billion cassettes were sold. Over time, the CD began to eclipse the cassette. Interestingly enough, Lou Ottens had helped invent the CD and as a supervisor for the development team (LA Times).

It’s impossible to imagine where audio recordings would be without the invention of the cassette. Even as CDs began to overtake the cassette in the late eighties and early nineties, cassettes were an integral part of music libraries everywhere. Between band demo tapes and making mixtapes for a friend or significant other, cassette tapes were a giant part of music sharing. Even though new cassette releases are more for the sake of aesthetics or nostalgia, one cannot deny the immense effect that cassettes had on music sharing and recording. In the wake of Lou Otten’s passing, it’s important to take a step back and acknowledge how far we’ve come and the people who brought us to this point. Sure, we can stream music on our phones or laptops now with relative ease, but a lot had to be developed to get to that point, and Ottens helped change music sharing forever.