Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer who invented the cassette tape and helped develop the compact disc decades later, has died. He was 94. Amsterdam-based news outlet NRC Handelsblad confirmed the news but didn’t provide details.
Working to alleviate the challenge of huge reel-to-reel decks and the portability of recordings, Ottens began working on the audiocassette when he was named head of new-product development for Philips in the early 1960s. He used a pocket-size block of wood as a guide for the cassette’s future size and shape.
His brainchild would go on to account for sales of an estimated 100 billion units worldwide.
The cassette was a dominant format for music sales from the late 1970s — when record companies complained about the scourge of “home taping” — until the rise of the CD in the mid-’80s. After accounting for just 4.6% of U.S. music sales in 1973, they outsold 8-track tapes for the first time in 1980 and then outsold LPs in 1984 for the first time and maintained at least a 50% market share from 1984-89, per the RIAA.
As Ottens says in the 2016 documentary Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, “We expected that it would be a success but not a revolution.”
The cassette had its detractors, who griped about tape hiss, spotty fidelity and unwinding tape — many folks kept a pencil handy in case of the latter. But the portable format’s success was buoyed by the rise of cassette decks in cars, the boombox craze of the late ’70s, the ensuing personal-stereo mania triggered by Sony’s introduction of the Walkman and the popularity of the mixtape.
Born in 1926, Ottens tinkered with radios as a teenager during World War II before dedicating himself to invention. Dubbed “the compact cassette” upon its release in 1963, the tapes were an immediate hit around the world. Some 20 years later, when Ottens was technical director of the audio division at Philips, he was part of the team that developed compact discs — the format that arose from the failed laserdisc experiment and eventually would doom cassettes as a dominant force in music sales.
Philips began to work on what was the ancestor of the CD in 1970. Dubbed the ALP — or audio long play — it was designed to rival then-dominant vinyl records by using laser technology. The company unveiled its new tech in a 1979 news conference and, working with Sony, hammered out the standards a year later. When Philips debuted it first production CD player in 1982, Ottens said, per the BBC: “From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete.”
Global sales of compact discs peaked at 2.46 billion in 2000 as the rise of Napster and file sharing began to devastate the music industry.
But, as Ottens notes about cassettes in the Documentary Mixtape trailer (watch it below): “The greatest thing is that it’s not yet over. I realize that numbers of people are still using it.”