Guy Who Invented the Cassette Tape Had One Big Regret

Philips engineer Lou Ottens, dead at 94, said he wished Philips, not Sony, created Walkman
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 11, 2021 9:35 AM CST
Updated Mar 14, 2021 1:05 PM CDT

Sad news today for anyone who ever recorded a mixtape off the radio (complete with DJ interruptions and cut-off songs) or knows what this picture means. Lou Ottens, a Dutch engineer who invented the cassette tape, has died at the age of 94, per NPR. Local media reports Ottens died Saturday in Duizel, in the North Brabant province. Ottens, who was an engineer heading product development in Belgium for the Philips electronics company, was tasked in the early '60s with shrinking large reel-to-reel tapes to a size that was portable and affordable. "Trying to envision something that didn't yet exist, Ottens used a wooden block that was small and thin enough to fit in his pocket" as a rough model, NPR notes. Per the Guardian, the cassette tape was introduced at a Berlin electronics fair in 1963 with the tagline: "Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!" "Lou wanted music to be ... accessible," says Zack Taylor, director of a documentary about the format.

Taylor tells NPR that Ottens pushed for Philips to distribute the license for cassettes so they could become a global standard that everyone could enjoy. The caption for the documentary's trailer notes Ottens had "mixed emotions" about his creation. He went on to play a big role in the development of CDs, and when cassette tapes started recently making a resurgence, he called the trend "nonsense," saying CD sound quality was much better, per Rolling Stone. Ottens has said that his biggest regret is that Sony, not Philips, came out with the hand-held device to play cassette tapes: the Walkman. As for that wooden block Ottens used as his inspiration, Olga Coolen, the director of the Philips Museum, says "it was lost when Lou used it to prop up his jack while [changing] a flat tire." More on Ottens at NPR, which has a remarkable anecdote about how a cassette tape led to the creation of one of the Rolling Stones' greatest hits. (More cassette tape stories.)

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