Death of Lou Ottens, the inventor of the audio cassette

The time when we walked around with a walkman in our pocket, when we had to rewind our cassette to listen to it again, when we made our personalized compilations (“mix-tapes”) by recording the songs that were played on the radio, this time is a distant memory. But these cassettes have transformed the way we listen to music. They would be more than 100 billion to have been sold in the world. Their inventor, Lou Ottens, died in Duizel in the Netherlands on March 6. He was 94 years old.

→ ARCHIVE. Sony will no longer sell Magnetic Tape Walkman in Japan.

The Dutch engineer joined the Philips group in 1952. In a few years, he climbed the ranks and became head of the “Product development” department in 1960. He first created, with his team, the brand’s first portable tape recorder. in 1961. But he was not satisfied, finding it too cumbersome. The team then decided to embark on the manufacture of a new product, this time able to fit in a jacket pocket.

The tape recorder is miniaturized, its reel inserted in a case and the first audio cassette was born in 1963. An invention that revolutionized access to music and its nomadic listening. In 2011, Lou Ottens appeared in the film A documentary mixtape. Facing the camera, he confides: “We expected it to be a success, but not a revolution”.

The arrival of the CD

His biggest regret was not having invented the Walkman, Sony’s iconic cassette player. But he then continues to mark the musical world with his contributions. He participated in the development of the “Compact Disc” or “CD”, marketed in 1980. A new worldwide success, sold today 200 billion copies worldwide and a reference for several generations. Cassette tape wore out quickly and Lou Ottens would say in a 2018 interview with Dutch newspaper NRC Handesblad “Nothing can equal the sound of the CD”.

In recent years, the tape is slowly becoming popular again, which Lou Ottens found absurd. They remain a tiny part of overall music sales but are attracting more and more people again. The Sony Walkman and its cassette “ Awesome Mix ” play a decisive role in the plot of the movie from Marvel studios Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014, followed by a second film and a second “Formidable compilation” in 2017.

Between 2019 and 2020, cassette sales doubled in the US and UK with tracks from Lady Gaga, 5 Seconds of Summer or Dua Lipa in the lead. According to the British Phonographic Industry, never so many cassettes have been sold in Great Britain since 2003. Lou Ottens’ invention is therefore not about to be forgotten. Nor to lose its sweet scent of nostalgia.


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