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Lou Ottens (1926–2021), inventor of the cassette tape

by Linnea Crowther

Lou Ottens was a Dutch engineer who invented the cassette tape, one of the most popular music formats of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.

Creating portable music

Ottens was working for Royal Philips in the 1960s, when the primary formats for recordings were vinyl records and reel-to-reel tapes. Both were clunky and not easily portable, though the reel-to-reel had the advantage of being recordable and rerecordable, not just for playback. Ottens envisioned something like the reel-to-reel, recordable and playable, but in a size he could put in his pocket. He unveiled his creation, the compact cassette, in 1963. It became immediately popular, and Ottens advocated for Philips to allow other manufacturers to make the cassette as well, ensuring its widespread acceptance.

Consumers loved cassette tapes, collecting music in the format as well as buying blank cassettes on which they could record – and the mixtape was born. The mixtape is a concept that has outlived the cassette’s dominance, evolving to CDs and then to online playlists. Ottens was well aware that the cassette tape had its limitations, including the fragility of the tape and the inferior audio fidelity compared to vinyl. But he appreciated how affordable and portable cassettes were. Two decades later, Ottens helped develop an improved portable music format: the CD.


Ottens on envisioning the cassette tape

“Because our aim was to make a pocket recorder, it should fit into the side pocket of my tweed jacket. I made a wood block that fitted in my pocket. That does not mean that carrying the actual recorder in my jacket was very comfortable or advisable.” —from a 2013 interview with the Register

Tributes to Lou Ottens

Full obituary: NPR

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