Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the man who invented the first cassette tape, has died at the age of 94. Ottens was one of the leading engineers at Philips in the 1960s, when he spearheaded the company’s quest to make music more accessible and portable. His invention would revolutionize the industry—changing the way the world listened to and recorded music and becoming at once “a sensation,” as the engineer told TIME on the 50th anniversary of the audio cassette tape’s introduction to the market.
Born in the Netherlands in 1926, Lou Ottens showed an interest in audio technology from a young age. As a teenager, he even built a radio outfitted with an old-fashioned directional antenna that allowed him and his family to listen to Radio Oranje during Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands in the course of WWII. Ottens called his rigged device the “Germanenfilter” because of its ability to avoid the signal jammers used by the Nazi government.
After obtaining an engineering degree, Ottens started working at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium in 1952. Eight years later, he was promoted as the head of the company’s new Product Development department, where he was tasked with inventing new technology for the music market. “The cassette tape was invented out of irritation about the existing tape recorder, it’s that simple,” Ottens would later say. The industry’s previous reel-to-reel tape systems—though they provided high-quality sound—were far from user-friendly, much too expensive for the average user, and extremely cumbersome.
Ottens’ original prototype for the cassette tape was a wooden block that could fit inside his jacket pocket—the goal for how small and portable the new tape should be. Eventually finding a way to enclose the tape reel in a plastic casing and make it playable, Ottens worked with Philips to have his design patented and even encouraged the company to license it to other manufacturers for free. This made it possible for cassettes to become the worldwide standard, paving the way for a new era in music recording and distribution. And Ottens even went on to be involved with the invention of the CD in his pursuit of high-fidelity sound in a reliable and portable format. So it seems that music enthusiasts everywhere have him to thank for the democratization of the commercial music industry and consumer access to music.
The cassette tape also became an iconic staple in the birth and rise of several popular genres of music—including punk, rock, and hip-hop. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones even credits the cassette tape in his writing of the band’s 1965 hit “Satisfaction.” “I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep,” he recalled in 2010, claiming that he woke up to find his Philips cassette recorder at the end of its tape and rewound it to hear the song’s signature guitar riff and his voice uttering the now-iconic chorus, “I can’t get no satisfaction”—which he had no recollection of writing.
Though Lou Otten’s invention was small in size, the cassette tape’s impact on the music industry was far from that. The world can even thank him for the subsequent rise of the mixtape, a phenomenon that continues to infiltrate modern music culture. (We’ve all spent hours crafting that perfect Spotify playlist.) Though the industry has once again shifted—this time to digital streaming platforms—cassette tapes are experiencing a renaissance in recent years, with 2020 cassette sales doubling to the highest they’ve been in almost 17 years. Otten’s legacy will continue to live on, even in spite of his own impatience for the cassette tape’s resurgence in popularity—due, in the engineer’s own opinion, mainly to nostalgia. “Nothing can match the sound of the CD,” he asserted once in an interview. “It is absolutely noise and rumble free. That never worked with tape.”
Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the man who invented the first cassette tape, has died at the age of 94.
Music enthusiasts and audiophiles around the world are expressing their appreciation for his invention. . .
. . . especially its contributions to the independent music industry and the subsequent invention of mixtapes.