The Tape Stopped: Lou Ottens, June 21, 1926 to March 9, 2021


Lou Ottens was born in Bellingwolde, Netherlands in 1926.   An employee of Philips, he developed the compact cassette in 1963, an important format of both audio and data storage for more than 50 years.  Ottens died on Tuesday, age 94.  [Corrected.  I had a brain cramp.]

Inventor of cassette tape Lou Ottens passed away

In the 1960s, Lou Ottens, then head of product development at the Belgian Hasselt branch of the Eindhoven company Philips, developed the cassette tape. In previous years, Ottens was annoyed with green and yellow tape recorders with the large reels and felt that something more user-friendly and especially something smaller should be replaced.

Ottens’ invention was a great success worldwide. More than 100 billion cassettes have been sold since its launch in 1963. But the bands disappeared after the release of the CD, which was developed twenty years later by the same Ottens together with a team of engineers. The CD also became a hit.

Here is another news link, in Dutch.

Ottens wasn’t only responsible for creating the cassette.  He was part of the team at Philips that developed the Compact Disk. Here is a news item about Ottens in Dutch (sorry, no subtitles available).

In 2013, Time magazine did a 50 year retrospective on audio cassettes.  The full article is no longer available, only the introduction.

Happy 50th Birthday, Cassettes!

The trusty audio cassette was introduced to the world in August of 1963

In August of 1963, the world met a new piece of technology that would go on to change the history of music: the audio cassette tape. That means that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the cassette.

As cassette inventor Lou Ottens, now 87, tells TIME, it was “a sensation” from day one.

More below the fold.

The Sony Walkman in 1980 did the same thing that TR-1 transistor radio did in 1954.  Prior to transistor radio, everyone in a house listened to the same music; individual radios created the music generation gap, the rock and roll generation.  The walkman repeated history, letting people choose their own music instead of being limited to what was on the radio, creating gaps within the younger generations.  Cassette tape’s portability and high quality audio (better than radio) changed society.

The first walkman and cassette tapes proved their toughness in the harshest of conditions: it went to the moon with Apollo 11 in 1969.  Philips also developed the Mini-Cassette which was used mostly in dictation machines, but it found other uses.

Just like vinyl records in recent years, cassettes have also seen a resurgence.  People in US prisons never stopped using cassettes until digital players became available.  But now younger people in the populace are enjoying and buying music on tape.  Sales in 2020 were twice that of 2019, the highest since 2003.  No one is kidding themselves that tape will regain its previous sales figures, but the desire for a portable analogue music format with quality (which LPs are not) is attractive to many people.

This Does Not Compute: The Return of Cassettes

There is only one remaining producer of commercial cassettes in the US, but smaller companies exist elsewhere.  Blank audio cassettes are still produced at a factory in Indonesia.

Great Big Story: Throwback on a Comeback: The Last Cassette Tape Factory

Here are a few youtube videos on cassettes, about their durability and sound quality.

VWestlife: 13 Reasons Why Cassettes Are Cool Again

VWestlife: Playing 50 YEAR OLD cassette tapes!

Techmoan: Cassettes – better than you don’t remember

Techmoan: Digital Audio Tape: The one DAT got away

And one more for fun, the Fine Bros. video of kids using walkmans.  Some of the little shavers make very astute observations about where tape is better and worse than digital music.

KIDS REACT TO WALKMANS (Portable Cassette Players)

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Cassettes weren’t just a storage and distribution medium for music.  Their importance to the computer revolution is incalculable.  In the late 1970s when the first computers came on the market costing between $300 to $1200, an 8″ 70KB floppy drive would have cost thousands of dollars, unaffordable to most families, most of whom could barely afford the computer.  Cartidges may have been a way to distribute games, but they offered no means of storage.  And forget about having a home punch card machine.

Enter the cassette player.  By connecting the audio input and output ports to these early computers, users could reliably store and retrieve data (video: The 8bit Guy) using machines that already existed and were affordable.  Yes, it was slow (I know, I lived it), but it worked.  The home gaming revolution might have still happened via cartidges, but computing and programming would likely have remained only for the wealthy.  Cassette tape democratized computing.  (Side note: a 60 minute cassette had the same storage as an 8″ floppy disk.)

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The thing I miss most about audio cassettes (also vinyl, VCRs, typewriters and 8bit computers) is the immediacy.  Unlike newer machines (computers, MP3 and CD players, etc.) which can have long startup and bootup times, a cassette deck works as soon as you press play.  There is instant gratification in hearing music, but also instant response in recording (e.g. something on the news that you wanted to save).  In the past, many people used cassettes to record off the radio or from other sources.  Families used them to record letters and send them through the mail, or as audio equivalents of photo albums to remember people’s voices.

Have I bought any commercial releases on cassette?  No, because every new cassette deck on the market uses the same Tanashin mechanism from China, all plastic with poor sound quality.  AM Stereo has a very thorough guide on cassette decks, what to look for an what to avoid.  I am actively shopping for a used deck (1990s or earlier) in local second hand shops.  (If anybody has an Optimus SCT-86 they don’t need. . .)  There are a few local stores selling classical and pop music on cassette.  And I would like to hear quality sound again while I still have my hearing.

I also recently joined the Blank Cassette Tapes group on facebook which is a mix of audiophiles, collectors and techheads in search of higher quality sound.  I like it.

Cliff Richard, "Wired For Sound" (1980):

I like small speakers, I like tall speakers
If they've music they're wired for sound

Walkin' about with a head full of music
Cassette in my pocket and I'm gonna use it
Stereo out on the street you know, woh oh woh

Into the car go to work I'm cruisin'
I never think that I'll blow all my fuses
Traffic flows into the breakfast show, woh oh woh

Power from the needle to the plastic
A.M., F.M. I feel so ecstatic now
It's music I've found and I'm wired for sound. . .

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