Lou Ottens, the former Philips engineer who gave the world its first compact cassette tape, has passed away. According to Dutch news outlet NRC Handelsblad, Ottens was 94 when he died on March 6th.
Ottens started work on the cassette tape in the early 1960s. The way NPR tells the story, he wanted to develop a way for people to listen to music that was affordable and accessible in the way that large reel-to-reel tapes at the time were not. So he first created a wooden prototype that could fit in his pocket to help guide the project. He also worked to convince Philips to license his invention to other manufacturers for free. Philips went on to introduce the first “compact cassette” in 1963, and the rest, as they say, is history. But that wasn’t the end of Ottens’ career. He went on to help Philips and Sony develop the compact disc.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of cassette tapes to music culture. We wouldn’t have mixtapes and playlists without them. What’s more, they allowed people to listen to their favorite songs and albums on the go. No ads or input from a radio DJ. That’s something that has come to define how people enjoy music ever since. And for all of their flaws, in recent years, cassette tapes have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity. In 2016, sales of the format increased by 74 percent. Two years later, they grew another 23 percent with help from the soundtracks of Stranger Thingsand Guardians of the Galaxy.
I remember having tons of cassettes laying around and a ton of broken cases. Sometimes the cases matched the tape inside.
Does anyone remember rewinding one with a pencil eraser because it got caught?
Somehow, the portability of music got us off the sofa and out jogging or skateboarding because we could listen to tunes. I think some people just wanted to show they could play tunes.
On the bright side, this is the beginning of the end to unwanted conversations on the plane.