The history of the cassette and why it refuses to die

[This was my column for GlobalNews.ca. – AC]

People of a certain vintage couldn’t help feel a twinge of sad nostalgia earlier this month with the news of the death of Lou Ottens, the inventor of the cassette.

In the very early 1960s, when working as an engineer on the new product development team at Phillips, the Dutch electronics manufacturer, Ottens had a mishap with an old-school, reel-to-reel machine that saw a bunch of tape uncontrollably unspool on the floor This caused him a great deal of irritation, prompting him to assign his people to come up with a better solution. He set out to build something much more user-friendly.

By 1962, working at the offices in Hasselt, Belgium, a goal was set: Could a reel-to-reel mechanism be shrunk to the size of a wooden block that could fit inside a shirt pocket? After another year’s work, the Compact Cassette — two tiny reels inside a plastic case — was unveiled at the Berlin Radio Show (the Funkausstellung) to great amazement.

The audio quality wasn’t great. The tape was just 3.81 mm wide and moved at a glacial 1 7/8 inches per second, originally enough for 30 minutes of recording time per side. But since the vision was to use the new format for simple office dictation duties, that wasn’t a problem.

The cassette created much industrial jealousy, too. German manufacturers Grundig and Telefunken, as well as several Japanese electronics companies, were working on their own version of the cassette and adoption of Ottens’ invention wasn’t assured. It wasn’t until Phillips made a licensing deal with Sony in 1965 that the Compact Cassette became the de facto standard for the planet.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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