Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the man who invented the first cassette tape, has died at the age of 94. Ottens was one of the leading engineers at Philips in the 1960s, when he spearheaded the company’s quest to make music more accessible and portable. His invention would revolutionize the industry—changing the way the world listened to and recorded music and becoming at once “a sensation,” as the engineer told TIME on the 50th anniversary of the audio cassette tape’s introduction to the market.
Born in the Netherlands in 1926, Lou Ottens showed an interest in audio technology from a young age. As a teenager, he even built a radio outfitted with an old-fashioned directional antenna that allowed him and his family to listen to Radio Oranje during Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands in the course of WWII. Ottens called his rigged device the “Germanenfilter” because of its ability to avoid the signal jammers used by the Nazi government.
After obtaining an engineering degree, Ottens started working at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium in 1952. Eight years later, he was promoted as the head of the company’s new Product Development department, where he was tasked with inventing new technology for the music market. “The cassette tape was invented out of irritation about the existing tape recorder, it's that simple,” Ottens would later say. The industry’s previous reel-to-reel tape systems—though they provided high-quality sound—were far from user-friendly, much too expensive for the average user, and extremely cumbersome.
Ottens’ original prototype for the cassette tape was a wooden block that could fit inside his jacket pocket—the goal for how small and portable the new tape should be. Eventually finding a way to enclose the tape reel in a plastic casing and make it playable, Ottens worked with Philips to have his design patented and even encouraged the company to license it to other manufacturers for free. This made it possible for cassettes to become the worldwide standard, paving the way for a new era in music recording and distribution. And Ottens even went on to be involved with the invention of the CD in his pursuit of high-fidelity sound in a reliable and portable format. So it seems that music enthusiasts everywhere have him to thank for the democratization of the commercial music industry and consumer access to music.
The cassette tape also became an iconic staple in the birth and rise of several popular genres of music—including punk, rock, and hip-hop. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones even credits the cassette tape in his writing of the band’s 1965 hit “Satisfaction.” “I wrote ‘Satisfaction' in my sleep,” he recalled in 2010, claiming that he woke up to find his Philips cassette recorder at the end of its tape and rewound it to hear the song’s signature guitar riff and his voice uttering the now-iconic chorus, “I can’t get no satisfaction”—which he had no recollection of writing.
Though Lou Otten’s invention was small in size, the cassette tape’s impact on the music industry was far from that. The world can even thank him for the subsequent rise of the mixtape, a phenomenon that continues to infiltrate modern music culture. (We’ve all spent hours crafting that perfect Spotify playlist.) Though the industry has once again shifted—this time to digital streaming platforms—cassette tapes are experiencing a renaissance in recent years, with 2020 cassette sales doubling to the highest they’ve been in almost 17 years. Otten’s legacy will continue to live on, even in spite of his own impatience for the cassette tape’s resurgence in popularity—due, in the engineer’s own opinion, mainly to nostalgia. “Nothing can match the sound of the CD,” he asserted once in an interview. “It is absolutely noise and rumble free. That never worked with tape.”
Dutch engineer Lou Ottens, the man who invented the first cassette tape, has died at the age of 94.
Music enthusiasts and audiophiles around the world are expressing their appreciation for his invention. . .
Thank you Lou Ottens. Cassettes were one of the top inventions of my life. Freed up music from the iron grip of the record companies. And of course created the romantic art of compilation tapes.
— Ronnie Hughes (@asenseofplace1) March 10, 2021
Farewell sir. Thank you for bringing happiness to music lovers like me. Without you, my youth would have felt empty.
Lou Ottens, who brought joy to many music lovers with his invention of the audio cassette tape, has died at the age of 94. https://t.co/LkPFIpFwcX
— Aris Setyawan (@arissetyawan) March 11, 2021
So sad to learn that Lou Ottens, inventor of the Compact Audio Cassette, has passed away.
Thank you for a format that first enabled us to make our own playlists and share them with others. #LouOttens #CassetteTape #RestInPeace pic.twitter.com/PHrSDVL3Q6
— RV Acoustics (@RVAcoustics) March 11, 2021
RIP Lou Ottens, Who Invented the Cassette in the 60s. May you have infinite mix tapes of your life now. pic.twitter.com/OyMKQlKChY
— Will ©️ (@SirWill) March 11, 2021
The mixtape was the romantic gift of my generation. It was a helluva lot harder than a mix CD or playlist, but the work that went into was the labor of love. Bless you, Lou Ottens, and adieu. https://t.co/fUnobzs018
— . (@newsmanone) March 10, 2021
. . . especially its contributions to the independent music industry and the subsequent invention of mixtapes.
Thank you Mr Lou Ottens. Your charming invention has outlived your wonderful 94 years and the cassette tape continues to offer an abundance of creative opportunities and financially viable alternatives for independent artist, labels and boutique industries alike. R.I.P good sir. https://t.co/cdz15JliUe
— Disc-Phalanx (@DiscPhalanx) March 10, 2021
RIP Lou Ottens … you will be remembered as an iconic inventor…. Cassettes and CDs were part of our lives till 2008/2010 Lou Ottens inventor of cassette and later CD was the man who filled our lives with so many colours and sounds…. https://t.co/6LpJDjHGlf
— Ch Fawad Hussain (@fawadchaudhry) March 11, 2021
Always love when you hear about someone who has changed the world, but whose name hasn’t become part of the lexicon. Lou Ottens definitely falls into that bracket. https://t.co/lwKPZjO39w
— Custodian Enstone (@CustodianEnsto1) March 10, 2021
Lou Ottens was a hero. Long live the cassette tape. I grew up on them. They still sound marvellous! https://t.co/XsoNEIMhkw
— ️atrick D. (@classicguitarnj) March 10, 2021
In memoriam. Een jongensachtige Lou Ottens, die ons toelacht: “Love for cassettes? It's not really rational. I like that!” pic.twitter.com/ORZRvhQAsv
— Diggin' Demos (@DigginDemos) March 9, 2021
There is even a whole documentary about the cassette tape! Watch the film in full on Amazon Prime Video.
These Incredible Works of Literature, Film, and Music Entered the Public Domain in 2021
Björk and Microsoft Create AI-Generated Music That Changes With the Weather
Nostalgic Artist Reimagines Today’s TV Shows and Films as Retro VHS Tapes