Unless you’re a serious tech geek, chances are you’ve probably never seen the name Lou Ottens before you read the above headline. But if you’ve ever made an old-fashioned mixtape, you’ll know his work very well.
Ottens worked for Phillips, the Dutch electronics company, first taking a job as an engineer in 1952. Eight years later, he headed up the company’s new product development team. One of their projects was a portable tape reel-to-reel recorder that sold very well. Yet Ottens was dissatisfied. “I got annoyed with the clunky, user-unfriendly reel to reel system, it’s that simple,” was his comment.
By 1962, he and his team had shrunk the reel-to-reel mechanism dramatically, encasing it in a wooden case. Its size determined by the size of a shirt pocket: the actual size is 4 inches by 2.5 inches by 0.5 inches.
The tape was 1/8 inch wide (exactly 3.81 mm but history has rounded that up to 4 mm) divided horizontally into four tracks: left and right channels for side one and left and right for side two. It ran at just 1 7/8 inches per second, something that hampered audio quality initially. But that wasn’t of a problem since Ottens envisioned the cassette to be used for simple office dictation duties.
The wooden case of the prototype was soon gone, replaced by one made of plastic and a patent followed. The Compact Cassette (as it was officially called) was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Show (the Funkausstellung) on August 30, 1963, proclaiming that this new miniature reel-to-reel tech was “smaller than a pack of cigarettes.” It’s hard to overestimate what a sensation the cassette was. It was so small!
But Ottens’ cassette wasn’t a slam-dunk success as other companies like Grundig and Telefunken pushed their versions of the technology. It wasn’t until Philips made a licensing deal with Sony in 1965, giving them the right to use the design for free. With support from the Japanese giant, the Phillips’ design was standardized for the planet, and over the decades more than 100 billion cassettes entered the marketplace.
It would be years before better quality magnetic coatings–the original ferric oxide was eventually replaced by chromium dioxide (1971), followed later by pure metal particles–greatly improved sound, making the cassette suitable for proper hi-fi listening.
Dolby Type B Noise Reduction, another big leap that greatly reduced the inherent annoying hiss of cassettes was also introduced in 1971. After that point, high-end cassette machines became an essential part of any hi-fi setup. But even before then, record labels started releasing pre-recorded cassettes in 1965, starting first in Europe under the name Music-Cassettes. They appeared the following July in North America with 49 titles being released simultaneously.
Once the cassette became a hit, Ottens and his team went to work on a new project in collaboration with Sony. The result was the compact disc, which was introduced in 1982.
Meanwhile, after peaking in the middle 80s and early 90s (in some territories, tapes sold as well as CDs until 1993), cassette sales began a precipitous decline in most of the world. They did, however, stay popular in places like Africa and SE Asia where they proved able to stand up to the heat, humidity, and dust. When I was in Bali in 2019, I found a store that stocked hundreds of cassette titles.
Ottens retired in 1986. In 2013, he acknowledged that the time for his invention had passed. His only regret? Seeing Sony introduce the revolutionary Walkman instead of Phillips.
If you want to go deeper, Time had this article on the cassette’s 50th anniversary. And then there’s this documentary from 2016.