Lou Ottens, Inventor Of The Cassette Tape, Dies At 94

The portable, recordable, DIY technology helped democratize music.

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Photo: Supanat Chantra / EyeEm / Getty Images

Lou Ottens, a Dutch engineer who invented the cassette tape, has died at the age of 94. According to NRC Handelsblad, Ottens passed away on Saturday, March 6.

Seeking to find a less expensive and more compact answer to reel-to-reel tapes, Ottens came up with his design at the Dutch technology company, Philips, where he served as the head of product development. The very first “compact cassette tape,” which used magnetic tape for playback and recording, debuted at the 1963 Berlin Radio Show. In the US, the innovative technology was unveiled in November 1964, alongside a machine to play and record the tapes.

While the cassette and player were initially designed for dictation, the technology became widely embraced by the music industry in the 70s and 80s as the sound quality improved – replacing clunkier 8-tracks and becoming a viable alternative to vinyl LPs. With Sony’s invention of the portable Walkman in 1979, cassette tapes quickly became the go-to format for music consumption. Tapes also made it incredibly easy and affordable to record and share music – from bootlegged concerts to mixtapes. Countless punk acts, rock bands, and hip-hop artists all benefitted from the technology. Today, it is estimated that more than 100 billion cassette tapes have been sold around the globe.

Ottens, who retired in 1986, later worked with Philips to develop another new format – one that would overtake LPs and tapes: the compact disc. The technology was introduced to the market in 1982.

Zack Taylor, who helmed the film Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, told NPR that Ottens “wanted music to be portable and accessible. He advocated for Philips to license this new format to other manufacturers for free, paving the way for cassettes to become a worldwide standard.”

In the past decade, cassettes have re-emerged – particularly as limited-edition, collectible releases. Last year, according to the NME, cassette sales in the UK more than doubled. Among the best-selling titles were Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, Yungblud’s Weird, and 5 Seconds to Summer’s CALM.

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