If you’re past 30, there’s a damn good chance Lou Ottens played a significant role in your life – even if you’ve never heard his name before. The inventor of the cassette tape has passed at the admirable age of 94, after six decades of providing the technology supporting music sharing, trading and preservation, not to mention the apex of pre-millennial romance: the mixtape.
Ottens began working for Dutch electronics maker Philips in 1952, eventually taking on the role of head of the company’s product development department. His desire for a more personal music experience was a departure from large reel-to-reel tapes, popular at the time, which provided high-quality sound but were seen as too bulky and expensive. Within a decade, his team had created the first portable tape recorder as well as the cassette tape, driven by Otten’s desire to make music a portable personal experience. The early-stage analog magnetic tape recording format allowed consumers the convenience of audio recording and playback.
“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. “He advocated for Philips to license this new format to other manufacturers for free, paving the way for cassettes to become a worldwide standard.”
“Cassettes taught us how to use our voice, even when the message came from someone else’s songs, compiled painstakingly on a mixtape,” Taylor explained, outlining the pivotal coming-of-age rituals millions of young people immersed themselves in during the ‘80s and ‘90s, whether recording songs off the radio or painstakingly making mixtapes for friends, romantic interests and ourselves.
More than 100 billion cassettes were sold worldwide before Ottens passed.
“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,” the Philips Museum said in a statement. “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 company added. “The worldwide success always surprised him though: ‘We knew it could become big, but could have never imagined it would be a revolution.'”