Lou Ottens, a former Philips engineer, pioneer and inventor behind the first compact cassette tape that changed the world and the way we listen to audio passed away weeks ago. According to Dutch news outlet NRC Handelsblad, Ottens was 94 when he died on March 6th.
His contribution to the world as an inventor can never be forgotten since he was the one behind the popular compact cassette tape. If any of you remember those small devices that we often inserted in radios or walkmans to play music, and had to rewind back or change sides to repeat tracks unlike today’s advanced MP3 players, then you’re definitely old. 🙂
Ottens was born in Bellingwolde on 21 June 1926. He showed an interest in technology and tinkering from an early age. While in his teens, during World War II, he constructed a radio that he would use to secretly listen to Radio Oranje broadcasts.
In order to avoid Nazi jammers, Ottens constructed the radio with a primitive directional antenna to gain access to transmissions during the war. After the war, he began attending the Delft University of Technology, where he studied mechanical engineering and also worked part-time as a drafting technician for an X-ray technology factory. He later graduated in 1952.
Ottens was a talented and influential engineer at Philips, where he also helped develop consumer compact discs. He started work on the cassette tape in the early 1960s and according to NPR, he wanted to develop a way for people to listen to music that was affordable and accessible.
So he first created a wooden prototype that could fit in his pocket to help guide the project. He also worked to convince Philips to license his invention to other manufacturers for free. Philips went on to introduce the first “compact cassette” in 1963, and the rest, as they say, is history. But that wasn’t the end of Ottens’ career. He went on to help Philips and Sony develop the compact disc.
The cassette tape was Ottens’ answer to the large reel-to-reel tapes that provided high-quality sound but were seen as too clunky and expensive. He took on the challenge of shrinking tape technology in the early 1960s when he became the head of new product development in Hasselt, Belgium, for the Dutch-based Philips technology company.
“Lou wanted music to be portable and accessible,” says documentary filmmaker Zack Taylor, who spent days with Ottens for his film Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape.
Lou Ottens wanted all music to be portable and accessible to everyone
Without cassette tapes, we wouldn’t have had mixtapes and playlists. Otten’s idea influenced music culture in more ways than we could have imagined. Despite their flaws, in recent years, cassette tapes have enjoyed something of a resurgence in popularity.
According to Engadget, in 2016, sales of the format increased by 74 percent. Two years later, they grew another 23 percent with help from the soundtracks of Stranger Things and Guardians of the Galaxy.
Working at Phillips, Lou Ottens led the development of the company’s first portable tape recorder, named the EL 3585. The product was a large success with sales passing over 1 million.
The success allowed Ottens to build on the product and achieve his main goal of making tapes and their players more portable and easier to use. Basing the design of a block of wood that could fit into his jacket pocket, the EL 3300, the world’s first portable cassette tape.
The portable cassette player was a worldwide phenomenon, with sales of tapes over 100 billion, allowing music fans to record tracks from the radio and listen to them whenever they wanted including on the go, a brand new concept for the time.
The cassette tape went ahead to became a popular sensation in the 70s and 80s until it was replaced by yet another innovative technology known as the CD (compact disc), something Ottens had created along with the rest of his team at Phillips.
Even after his retirement, Ottens remained a part of the technology world for many years when he became chairman of the Dutch Association for Logistics Management in 1988. Rest in peace Lou Ottens.
Author: Allan Bangirana
Allan Bangirana has a taste for all kinds of topics and usually writes about tech, entertainment, sports and community projects that make a difference in society.