RIP Lou Ottens, An Inspiration
Written by Andrew Backhouse on March 26, 2021
The Dutch inventor of the cassette tape, Lou Ottens, has passed away at the age of 94. The designer died on March 6th 2021. It is thanks to the humble cassette that I fell in love with Radio. So, I would like to remember Ottens and I would like to share my story of how this man became pivotal in my love of radio and my love of music in general.
Ottens first started working in music after beginning to work as head of the product development department at Dutch-based technology giants Philips in 1960. Going further on to play a crucial role at the company; for the Berlin Radio Show electronics fair in 1963, he developed the analogue magnetic tape recording format for recording and playback as well as introducing the first compact cassette tape.
The invention was a breakthrough moment in how the public consumed music. It immediately made listening to music more accessible than ever before. The cassette tape was the first step on it, becoming a reality of listening to music freely on the go due to the miniature size of cassettes.
However, this wasn’t his only revolutionary act. In 1979 Ottens helped Philips create a durable version of the compact disc, which would be even more accessible and extraordinary than the cassette. There is a lot less ‘hiss’ on a CD to start with…
I used to record the Top 40 off Radio 1 back in the 80s and, when I was working abroad, my younger brother would post me out cassettes to the country I was in. These cassettes were a life line in a bad Pop environment. Not quite what I listen to now; Indie stuff, really. I had mixtapes of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Flaming Lips and Folk Implosion mailed to me in China. Manic Street Preachers, Wu Tang Clan and Björk posted out to me in Thailand by friends. Those cassettes don’t just contain music; they contain memories. Recordings of the John Peel Radio Show were posted out to me when I worked in Borneo. John Peel in Borneo!
You used to make a mixtape for your date on those awkward high school trysts. Who the hell wants a Spotify playlist on a date?
Ottens retired in 1986; however, his legacy continues to live on, with the cassette tape making a renaissance in the United Kingdom. Last year, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) shared their cassette sales for 2020 and revealed that 157,000 tapes were sold in the UK by the end of 2020, despite two national coronavirus lockdowns that have forced independent record shops to close. The figures show that 2020 has been the best 12 month period for cassette sales in the UK for seventeen years. Firm proof that a good idea will never go out of fashion.