All Praise Lou Ottens: The Inventor of the Cassette Tape Dies at Age 94

The cas­sette tape is so ubiq­ui­tous, so much a part of my life since I can even remem­ber music as a thing, that it was a shock to find out that the man who invent­ed it, Lou Ottens, passed away at the age of 94. Of course, some­body did have to invent the cas­sette tape, but in all these years I nev­er thought to look the per­son up. Such an inven­tion first makes you think of the world before it: records (dear­ly beloved, still around), and reel-to-reel tape (not so dear­ly beloved). The for­mer was a fixed object, an art object, immutable (until turntab­lists came along). The lat­ter was a way to record our­selves, but so much more was involved in the act. Peo­ple had to wind the spin­dle, to thread the tape through the cap­stan and heads, and record usu­al­ly in mono. You can see an overview of a mod­el from the 1950s here.

Ottens was a Dutch engi­neer work­ing at Philips who became head of new prod­uct devel­op­ment in Has­selt, Bel­gium. His assign­ment was to shrink the reel-to-reel and, like the radio, make it more portable. And here is the most impor­tant deci­sion: Ottens want­ed the for­mat to be licensed to oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers for free, so every­body could par­take. Con­sid­er­ing the end­less for­mat bat­tles that we fight every day, this deci­sion was as mon­u­men­tal as it was human­ist.

He designed his pro­to­type out of wood and sized it to fit into a pock­et for true porta­bil­i­ty. (This pro­to­type, by the way, dis­ap­peared from his­to­ry after he used it to prop up a jack when fix­ing a flat tire.) The actu­al com­pact cas­sette, pro­mot­ed as a cheap­er and small­er for­mat for major label releas­es, imme­di­ate­ly gained a sec­ond life as an artis­tic tool: a way for reg­u­lar folk to record what­ev­er they want­ed. Kei­th Richards report­ed­ly record­ed the riff for “Sat­is­fac­tion” on the portable cas­sette play­er near his bed. Peo­ple record­ed lec­tures, the tele­vi­sion, the radio, their rel­a­tives, their friends, the ran­dom sound of life. Peo­ple start­ed to curate: their favorite music, their favorite peo­ple, their favorite sounds. Peo­ple pre­tend­ed to be DJs, pre­tend­ed to be artists, pre­tend­ed to be tele­vi­sion hosts, pre­tend­ed to be authors, pre­tend­ed to be crit­ics. And some through pre­tend­ing became the things they want­ed to be.

Peo­ple made mix­tapes for friends and for lovers. They looked at the remain­ing tape on the spin­dle and won­dered if the song they had to end side two would fit. Peo­ple real­ized that cas­sette tape could be a col­lage of sounds, cut up by the pause but­ton.

Ottens may not have real­ized it, but he had cre­at­ed a com­plete­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic for­mat. In the 1980s, the back pages of music mag­a­zines flour­ished with the cat­a­logs of cas­sette-only album releas­es. If you had a Walk­man and a friend with a halfway decent tape recorder, you could car­ry around your favorite music and lis­ten to it when­ev­er you want­ed.

The record indus­try rebelled (for a while). They want­ed you to know that “home tap­ing is killing music” but did so with a skull and bones graph­ic that made it that much cool­er. In the end it didn’t real­ly mat­ter. The music fans repur­chased every­thing on CD any­way. (Apart from the peo­ple who taped CDs and even then after that *those* peo­ple down­loaded the mp3s.)

And here’s the thing. Ottens wasn’t pre­cious about any of it. He was part of the devel­op­ment of the Com­pact Disc. The cas­sette was just anoth­er step­ping stone.

But despite the numer­ous arti­cles that cas­settes were a dead medi­um, they kept com­ing back. Mix­tapes, the lifeblood of hip hop cul­ture con­tin­ued to thrive, even if by the end of the cen­tu­ry the idea was more of a con­cept. And then in the mid­dle of the 2010s cas­settes came roar­ing back after the vinyl resur­gence. For bands it was a cheap way to pro­vide a phys­i­cal prod­uct, what with vinyl still being very expen­sive to pro­duce. Band­camp, the place to go for cas­sette-only releas­es, offers artis­tic tapes for the same price as a dig­i­tal down­load. So why not get both and start your library again?

Ottens nev­er fore­saw any of this hap­pen­ing, but it speaks to some­thing very human: we want con­trol of our music, and dig­i­tal music, espe­cial­ly in the cloud, ain’t cut­ting it. We want to hold some­thing in our hands and claim it as our own.

So pour one out for Lou Ottens, who start­ed a rev­o­lu­tion that hasn’t fin­ished. Do *not* press pause.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Home Tap­ing Is Killing Music: When the Music Indus­try Waged War on the Cas­sette Tape in the 1980s, and Punk Bands Fought Back

2,000+ Cas­settes from the Allen Gins­berg Audio Col­lec­tion Now Stream­ing Online

Lis­ten to Audio Arts: The 1970s Tape Cas­sette Arts Mag­a­zine Fea­tur­ing Andy Warhol, Mar­cel Duchamp & Many Oth­ers

Stream a Mas­sive Col­lec­tion of Indie, Noise Indus­tri­al Mix­tapes from the 80s and 90s

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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  • Jim Wood says:

    Few peo­ple remem­ber a notible pre­cur­sor to the Phillips cas­sette, a 5 × 7.125″ tape car­tridge for­mat devel­oped by RCA which used 1/4″ tape and ran at 3.75ips speed. It was on the mar­ket approx­i­mate­ly from 1958 to 1964.

  • Brad Nottingham says:

    My very non music ori­ent­ed father start­ed me on cas­settes. As a young geol­o­gist in 1965 he bought Norelco’s icon­ic mid­sized play­er with sep­a­rate micro­phone run­ning on C bat­ter­ies to record geo­log­i­cal talks at con­fer­ences. With­in a year I care­ful­ly worked my way into full pro­fi­cien­cy, includ­ing even sep­a­rat­ing cas­sette shells to splice-repair his orig­i­nal Norel­co labeled cas­settes for my FM radio cap­ture mix tapes. This pro­fi­cien­cy led to full pos­ses­sion of that clas­sic Norel­co unit.

    Being the senior dri­ver of my Cana­di­an high school “Hik­ing & Ski­ing Club” with a 67 sta­tion wag­on, my high school rid­ers were impressed with a mix tape played en route, so that lead to my first seri­ous girl­friend lean­ing into me on the cen­ter of the front bench seat hold­ing the turned up Norel­co unit and lov­ing my audio mix arrange­ment. We had long been out of FM radio range but the gang couldn’t believe I was play­ing pop­u­lar music. Fast for­ward » to ‘81: I had saved for the pur­chase of the ulti­mate, a bul­let-proof Pana­son­ic RX 5100 boom box with LED meter­ing and all the aux inputs I need­ed. I could go on, but I bet­ter press (II) pause here !

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