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Rewind to the start: Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette, dies aged 94

Cliff Richards singing the praises of portable music in the 1981 video for the song Wired for Sound.

Cliff Richards singing the praises of portable music in the 1981 video for the song Wired for Sound.

Ottens died on March 6 in Duizel, in the Netherlands, said Tommie Dijstelbloem, a spokesperson for Philips. He was 94.

In the 1970s, after spearheading the development of the cassette, he contributed to the development of the compact disc, a product Philips and Sony jointly unveiled in 1982. The new format soon pushed the cassette aside.

“The best thing about the compact cassette story,” the newspaper Nederlands Dagblad wrote in 2011, “is that its inventor also caused its downfall.”

Not quite. Cassettes remain popular with some aficionados. Ottens, though, was not one of them.

“Now it’s nostalgia, more or less,” he said in the documentary. “People prefer a worse quality of sound out of nostalgia.”

Lodewijk Frederik Ottens was born in Bellingwolde, the Netherlands, on June 21, 1926. He graduated from what is now Delft University of Technology with a degree in mechanical engineering and began working at Philips in 1952.

He became head of product development in 1957 and began overseeing the development of a portable reel-to-reel machine in 1960. Olga Coolen, director of the Philips Museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, said that when he conceived the idea of a cassette tape, he carried a wooden block in his coat pocket that was the size and shape of what he envisioned.

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“His wooden block prototype was lost when Lou used it to prop up his jack while changing a flat tire,” she said by email. “However, we still have the very first cassette recorder he developed on display, a testimony to his foresight and innovation.”

The company unveiled the cassette in 1963 at a product exhibition in Berlin. The old saying about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery was quickly proved.

“Our cassette was extensively viewed and photographed by the Japanese,” Ottens told an interviewer in 2013. “A few years later, the first Japanese imitations came, with a different tape format, different dimensions, different playing time. Not shocking, but too many hit the market. Then it becomes a big mess.”

Philips made its licensing available free, largely at Ottens’ urging, and its version of the cassette soon became the standard.

“That’s the reason that it didn’t become obsolete too early,” Ottens said in the film, “and it’s taken 50 years to die.”

Philips says 100 billion cassettes have been sold worldwide.

Ottens wanted something small enough to fit in a jacket pocket.

Ottens wanted something small enough to fit in a jacket pocket. Credit:Shutterstock

After the cassette, Ottens worked on an unsuccessful videodisc project before shifting to the CD. And before that innovation was released, he had shifted his focus to Video 2000, a system intended to compete with VHS; it, too, did not catch on.

He retired from Philips in 1986. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

“Lou was never comfortable taking credit for the cassette, or for the incalculable impact it had on the history of music,” Taylor said. “What I saw as a deeply personal medium, Lou saw as a pragmatic answer to the cumbersome nature of the reel-to-reel”.

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