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11 March 2021

Lou Ottens, Inventor Of The Cassette Tape, Dies Aged 94

Kevin Britland/Alamy Stock Photo
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Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer who is created as the inventor of the audio cassette tape has died, aged 94. His family announced that he had died in his hometown of Duizel, North Brabant, last weekend.

Ottens was born on 21 June 1926 and began dabbling in engineering in his childhood, building his own radio to receive Radio Oranje while Germany occupied the Netherlands during the war. He added a directional antenna to the radio, which he called a “Germanenfilter”, as it was capable of avoiding the jammers used by the Nazi regime to suppress banned broadcasts.

He went on to receive a degree in engineering and began working for Philips in their Belgian factory in 1952. By 1960 he was head of Philips’ product development department, which is where he – alongside his team – developed the audio cassette tape.

Three years later they would present the tape at the Berlin Radio electronics fair and the rest is history. It was created as a replacement for the cumbersome reel-to-reel tapes and advertised with the slogan, “smaller than a pack of cigarettes!” and made to fit inside a shirt or jacket pocket.

Ottens made a deal with Sony and Philips to patent his cassette, after Japanese companies began creating their own versions. According to an interview with the engineer in Time magazine on the cassette’s 50th birthday, it was a “sensation” from day one.

Since its arrival in the 1960s, an estimated 100 billion audio cassette tapes have been sold worldwide. Their appeal took on a new form in the 80s and 90s, with people using them to make personalised mix tapes. And though streaming and downloads dominate today’s listening culture, there is still a nostalgic appeal for the cassette, with artists including Lady Gaga, The Streets and Dua Lipa releasing their albums on cassette format and with the BBC reporting that cassette sales had doubled in a year back in 2020. While reissues of classic albums are also getting limited edition cassette versions.

In 2016, Ottens appeared in Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, a film that celebrated the history of the cassette and featured Henry Rollins, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Thurston Moore, among others. You can see the trailer below.

Ottens would go on to work on the creation of the compact disk – or CD, of which more than 200 billion have sold across the world. He would retire in 1986.

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