Inventor of Compact Cassettes, which spawned countless mixtapes, dies at 94

The man who invented cassette tapes in 1963, which spawned the recording of countless mixtapes for music lovers, has died at age 94.

Lou Ottens, while working with the Dutch company Royal Philips, came up with the idea of the Compact Cassette — a convenient analog magnetic tape recording format for audio recording and playback.

“We are very sad to have to inform you that Lou passed away peacefully on Saturday, 6 March 2021,” daughter Arine Ottens told WTOP.

While vinyl records contained prerecorded music, the cassette tape enabled users to record their favorite songs from records or their radios onto the tape contained in the small plastic container, which measured 4 by 2.5 by 0.5 inches.

Long before digital playlists and streaming, music aficionados lovingly crafted strings of songs, with a short pause between them, commonly called a mixtape.

The fragility of the 1/8 inch tape, jockeying between two spools inside the cassette, often led to the tape turning upside down on the spools, or untangling within a cassette recorder installed in a car. Placing a pencil inside the holes of a cassette tape, and slowly twisting the pencils to rescue the tape became an invaluable skill.

Eventually, Ottens was also involved in the invention of the more durable compact disc, CDs, in the 1970s.

Ottens often downplayed his role in the invention of music-to-go: “Everything disappears in the world when it has done its time. So will I.”

The Philips Museum released a statement on Ottens’ passing:

“It saddened all of us to hear about Lou Ottens passing. Lou was an extraordinary man who loved technology, even as his inventions had humble beginnings. During the development of the cassette tape, in the early 1960s, he had a wooden block made that fit exactly in his coat pocket. This was how big the first Compact Cassette was to be, making it a lot handier than the bulky tape recorders in use at the time. His invention came to be known as the Cassette Tape and over 100 billion were sold globally. In addition the Compact Cassette, the Compact Disc or CD, was thanks in part to his inventiveness. The worldwide success always surprised him though: ‘We knew it could become big, but could have never imagined it would be a revolution.’
 
The cassette recorder was also a huge hit and was particularly successful among young people in the 60s, 70s and 80s. It also allowed people to quickly record audio and helped capture some of the most iconic songs. Keith Richards, the legendary guitarist of the Rolling Stones, famously wrote in his 2010 autobiography “Life”:
 
“I wrote the song ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep. I didn’t know at all that I had recorded it, the song only exists thank God to the little Philips cassette recorder. I looked at it in the morning – I knew I had put a new tape in the night before – but it was at the very end. Apparently, I had recorded something. I rewound and then ‘Satisfaction’ sounded … and then 40 minutes of snoring!”

In 2013, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the cassette tape, Lou was our guest of honor, as we created a special exhibition to his ground breaking invention at the Philips Museum.  Remarkably, his wooden block prototype was lost when Lou used it to prop up his jack while change a flat tire. However, we still have the very first cassette recorder he developed on display, a testimony to his foresight and innovation. 
 
Olga Coolen
Director of the Philips Museum”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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