Louis Ottens, the Dutch engineer behind the invention of the cassette tape, has died at the age of 94. This small plastic rectangle, which was invented to make recorded music easily transportable, was an iconic object for a whole generation of music lovers. We can all remember the first cassette tapes we purchased, as well as mix tapes, afternoons spent copying albums borrowed from the library or from friends, or listening to our favorite radio show, one finger on the Record button of the stereo system, ready to record the last track of our favorite group.
A long-time engineer at Dutch electronics and technology company Philips, Louis Ottens led the Belgian team tasked with transforming bulky reel tape recorders into something more portable and user-friendly. He therefore had the idea of making a cassette that could fit in a pocket to replace the large reel tapes of the time.
The Philips audio cassette made its debut in electronics fairs in 1963. Shortly after the presentation of the first model, Japanese electronics companies began to manufacture their own version of the audio cassette adopting different sizes. Ottens then had a decisive role in the process of striking an agreement between Sony and Philips to ensure that his model would become the patented cassette tape on the market.
In addition to its ultra compact format for the time, the cassette tape was also the first medium to allow everyone to easily record music at home. Tape recorders and stereos equipped with a “Record” function were indeed much more affordable and more common than 4 and 8 track reel to reel players / recorders. Just like the legendary Walkman, the cassette tape is both compact and extremely robust.
If its compact size and affordable price were undeniable advantages that have allowed the audio cassette to find its way into many pockets, backpacks and car radios, its sound quality remained however far inferior to that of vinyl record. Some may find this sound quaint and charming through nostalgia goggles, but everybody will quickly remember the sound of a worn-out tape, or, worse still, the ordeal of using a pen to rewind a tape caught in the reading head.
As audio cassettes and vinyl records dominated the market, Ottens – then head of the audio branch at Philips – commissioned a team to develop compact disc technology for the general public. Ottens once again had a lead role in coming up with an agreement between Philips and Sony to establish a global audio CD standard. In just a few years, this new format replaced the cassette tape in the vast majority of living rooms, bedrooms, cars and portable music players.
Still sought after by certain collectors, the cassette tape is a true cultural symbol and remains an extremely relevant medium in certain musical sub-genres. Some music labels are even entirely dedicated to the production of cassettes tapes.
A little piece of nostalgia for some, a symbol of DIY culture or even a vestige of the past for others, the invention of Louis Ottens is the ancestor of the moderndigital audio players and has left its mark in the heart of many music lovers.