Lou Ottens, the Dutch inventor of the audio cassette tape, has died at 94. Ottens died last Saturday (March 6) in Duizel, the Netherlands, according to the Dutch news outlet NRC Handelsblad. No cause of death was provided.
Born in Bellingwolde on June 21, 1926, Ottens showed an early interest in technology and tinkered with radios as a teenager during World War II. He became the head of the product development department at Dutch-based technology company Philips in 1960, leading the Belgian team tasked with alleviating the challenge of huge reel-to-reel decks by creating something more portable and accessible. Starting by cutting a block of wood that could fit into his jacket’s inside pocket, Ottens developed the analog magnetic tape recording format for recording and playback. The first compact cassette made its debut at the Berlin Radio Show electronics fair in 1963 and became an instant success, going on to account for sales of an estimated 100 billion units worldwide, according to NRC. “I expected it would be a success, not a revolution,” Ottens said in the 2016 documentary Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.
“Of all the musicians and historians I interviewed for the cassette documentary, Lou was by far the most critical of the format,” Zack Taylor, the director of the film, told Rolling Stone. “When I arrived on his doorstep in 2013, I expected to find a proud engineer, ready to take a bow and talk about the revolution he helped start. In reality, Lou couldn’t understand why people were still talking about the primitive, lo-fi cassette, even as the format celebrated its 50th anniversary. As an engineer, he was always focused on fidelity and reliability (two things that cassettes aren’t exactly famous for).”
Almost 20 years later, while Ottens was technical director of the audio division at Philips, he helped revolutionize music consumption once again as part of the team that developed compact discs — the format that would replace cassettes and vinyl records as the dominant force in music sales. “From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete,” Ottens declared in 1981, when Philips presented a production CD player for the first time. Over 200 billion CDs have since been sold worldwide.
“Cassettes taught us how to use our voice, even when the message came from someone else’s songs, compiled painstakingly on a mixtape,” Zack Taylor told NPR. “So next time you make that perfect playlist on Spotify or send a link to share a song, you can thank Lou Ottens.”