Lou ottens (1926–2021)

End of a musical era (II): Lou Ottens

Dutch engineer and inventor Lodewijk Frederik Ottens, who’s credited with inventing the cassette tape, died on 6 March 2021 at his home in Duizel, the Netherlands. He was 94.

This news will resonate with a great many people, even though they didn’t know Lou Ottens. That’s because there was a time, way back in the 1970s and ’80s, when one of the most earnest symbols of friendship, affection, and love, even, came in the form of a cassette tape – commonly known as “the mix tape”. 

People who made mix tapes were the precursors of today’s DJs. They’d flip through stacks of vinyl records looking for songs, assembling playlists in ways that conveyed specific emotions. Their enabling item was the cassette tape: the physical destination of their playlist.

One of the charms of the cassette tape was its size. A standard plastic cassette box measures about 15mm x 110mm x 70mm. When Ottens was developing the cassette, he carved a block of wood to a size that fitted comfortably into his jacket pocket.

Another benefit of the cassette was its ease of use. In its obituary for Ottens, the Wall Street Journal tells the story of how, in 1963, the idea for this enclosed reel of tape came to him, “one night after he struggled to thread tape through a bulky reel-to-reel player. A colleague quipped that the cassette was inspired by ‘the clumsiness of a very clever man’.”

The New York Times picks up the story of how, after his reel-to-reel frustrations, the next day at work, as head of the audio division of Netherlands-based electronics giant Philips, Ottens gathered his engineers and designers and insisted that they create “something foolproof: the tape had to be enclosed, and the player had to fit in his jacket pocket”.

Ottens was born on 21 June 1926, in the village of Bellingwolde, near the Dutch-German border. The Guardian says Ottens “showed an early interest in engineering, building a radio as a teenager through which he and his parents could receive Radio Oranje during Germany’s wartime occupation of the Netherlands”.

It says he “equipped the device with a directional antenna that he called a ‘Germanenfilter’ because it could avoid the jammers used by the Nazi regime”.

After the war he attended the Delft University of Technology, where he studied mechanical engineering. He graduated in 1952 and went to work for Philips.

In 1960 he became head of the company’s newly established product development department, the Guardian says, “and within a year he unveiled the EL 3585, Philips’ first portable tape recorder, which would go on to sell more than a million units”.

A drawback to the compact size of cassettes was a severe loss of sound quality, when compared to vinyl records or even the cassette’s precursor, the eight-track tape.

The magnetic tape used in cassettes, at 3.81mm wide, was a less-than-ideal recording medium.

A 2011 article in Rocker magazine, headlined “Vinyl, CD, MP3, cassette – which sounds best? Ask the producer!” puts it succinctly: “The free market spoke, and the convenient little cassette won the day. The problem was, it sounded terrible.”

It goes on to explain: “Slow tape speed and the small tape width meant there was a tremendous amount of tape hiss,” adding that good-quality tape players included “various tape formulations and schemes for noise reduction … to combat the problem”. 

Nevertheless, the format caught on, selling more than 100 billion cassette tapes worldwide, according to Philips.

The Wall Street Journal says one reason the cassette tape has endured is that Ottens worked with Japanese manufacturers to set an international standard for the product. Philips made its licensing available for free, largely at Ottens’ urging, and its version of the cassette soon became the standard.

When Sony launched its Walkman cassette player in 1979, which Time magazine estimates went on to sell about 200 million units, the success of Ottens’ invention was assured.

After the cassette, Ottens worked on a video-disc project and also participated in the development of the compact disc. He retired from Philips in 1986.