Speed Reads

Rest in peace

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, has died at 94

Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer who developed the cassette tape at Philips in 1963, died on Saturday, Dutch media reported Wednesday. He was 94. Ottens joined Philips in 1952 and rose to become head of product development by 1960. He wanted to create a portable tape recorder because he "got annoyed with the clunky, user-unfriendly reel-to-reel system," he explained years later. The Philips "compact cassette" was unveiled at a 1963 electronics fair, boasting it was "smaller than a pack of cigarettes."

Ottens carved a prototype of the cassette out of wood, making sure it would fit inside a jacket pocket, explains Marc Masters, who is writing a book on the history of cassette tapes. (That wooden prototype "was lost when Lou used it to prop up his jack while change a flat tire," Philips Museum director Olga Coolen tells NPR.)

Ottens convinced Philips to license the technology, allowing it to spread to ubiquity by the 1980s. But the cassette tape's inventor, who nearly 20 years later helped Philips develop with Sony the technology behind the consumer compact disc, soured on cassettes and remained committed to the CD.

For a generation of unsigned bands, Deadheads, and fans of rock, pop, punk, hip hop, and other genres, the cassette tape holds a much more sentimental spot. "Cassettes taught us how to use our voice, even when the message came from someone else's songs, compiled painstakingly on a mixtape," filmmaker Zack Taylor, who interviewed Ottens for his documentary Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, tells NPR.

John Cusack (and Nick Hornby) memorably explained the rules of the romantic mixtape in High Fidelity.

Ottens told Taylor he's surprised people are still buying and using cassette tapes. "We expected it would be a success, but not a revolution," he said. Peter Weber