The inventor of the cassette tape, Lou Ottens, died this past week (on March 6) at his home in Duizel, the Netherlands. He was 94. The Dutch engineer spent 34 years at Philips, which is where, as the director of product development in the early 1960s at the company’s Hasselt, Belgium factory, he stumbled upon the idea for the enclosed-cartridge format after experiencing one unraveling-of-reel-to-reel tapes too many.
First introduced at IFA Berlin in 1963 as “smaller than a pack of cigarettes,” according to the original tagline, cassettes soon took off, beating out a similar but derivative technology from Japan. This was thanks in no small part to Ottens’s insistence that the format be license-free—an early visionary lesson on the benefits of giving away your technology to drive mass adoption and grab market share. Ottens’s team had already been working on a carry-friendly reel-to-reel tape recorder, but the simplicity and compact, all-in-one design of the enclosed cassette tape was a game-changer that made recording and portable audio a mainstream phenomenon.
As with vinyl, a decade or so of relative obscurity for cassettes in the aughts has over the past few years flipped back in the other direction, with sales of cassettes since 2017 continually on the rise. Many independent record stores like Amoeba Music and Jackknife Records and even chains like Urban Outfitters and Walmart carry new, used, and even blank cassettes, while some bands and labels are once again releasing in the format. Demand has been strong enough that a 2019 shortage in blank cassettes led the National Audio Company to start manufacturing them again.
From home audiophile components such as the Nakamichi Dragon to after-market Blaupunkt tape decks for the car to the portable Sony Walkman, cassette tape recorders and players were the main companion to vinyl throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. Even after the CD supplanted vinyl in the late ’80s, cassettes remained the only way to easily record music for portable consumption until rewritable CDS and MP3s emerged around the turn of the millennium.
Will cassettes hit the big time once more? Probably not; between their background hiss and a tendency to wear down, cassette tapes have never been a preferred medium for sound quality. But their inventor, who went on help develop the compact disc and the would-be VHS-replacement Video 2000 in the 1980s, never thought of his invention as a forever thing. “People prefer a worse quality of sound out of nostalgia,” Ottens said in the 2016 film Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape. “When your time has gone, it’s time to disappear. Is there a better product than cassettes? Well, then you stop. I don’t believe in eternity.” Available to stream for free online, filmmaker Zach Taylor’s documentary on cassette tapes features several interviews not only with Ottens, but also music producers, DJs, and musicians such as Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, and Thurston Moore.
While the popularity of cassettes may wane once more, their late inventor’s legacy of popularizing consumer-friendly recording and portable music transcends formats and is likely to endure.
Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape is available to stream for free on IMDb TV, Peacock, Pluto TV, and Tubi.