The legacy of Lou Ottens

As has been widely reported in the media, Lodewijk (Lou) Frederik Ottens, the Dutch inventor of the Compact Cassette as well as the Compact Disc died last month.

He passed away on the 6th of March 2021 at the age of 94. At least he got to C90!

Lou Ottens in 2007 for an interview with De Ingenieur (image via WikiCommons)

Truth be told, Mr. Ottens didn’t really single-handedly “invent” the compact cassette; he was in charge of a team of Philips engineers in Hasselt, Belgium who wanted to develop a portable tape recorder / dictation device and the associated tape cartridges for the home consumer. This was achieved by simplifying, miniaturising and re-imagining several existing concepts and products. It was in mono.

Little could he know what legacy his personal frustration with open-reel tapes would leave.

The product debuted at the IFA in Berlin in 1963 but it wasn’t until 1966 when Lou Ottens and Gerrit Gazenbeek flew to Japan and were bluffed by Sony’s Norio Ohga into wavering all licensing fees for use of the format that the “Compact Cassette” became a standard the world over, eventually usurping the competing 8-track as well as (early co-developer) Grundig’s competing “Doppel-Cassette” (AKA “DC International”) cartridge tape formats.

Subsequent improvements in tape formulation and developments like Dolby NR soon allowed the humble compact cassette to become a serious contender to vinyl, and when Sony introduced the Walkman in 1979 things got really portable and personal. There’s no point repeating the huge impact the cassette had on the world of music consumption, and it should also be mentioned that if it wasn’t the Compact Cassette then… well, then surely someone else’s recordable tape cartridge system would’ve done the same thing.

Techmoan painted a good eulogy of the story.

To me, personally, the cassette is a more than just a format from a bygone era; I have deep and fond memories of it — although I can’t actually remember when I last played one.

Oh, wait, I do: the last tape I played and actively listened to was an unopened double-cassette compilation from 1986. This was almost three years ago and in a car I no longer have. As for recording tapes… well, I actually did that some six years ago. Those recordings recently got digitised via a Yamaha deck, one of many I’ve accumulated since I stopped recording or listening to tapes. There are more waiting to be restored in the basement.

Yeah, this makes a lot of sense!

So what, then, is the attraction to these damn things? Is it the challenge of getting the best performance out of an imperfect device? Is it because it has discrete components and moving parts that really are user-serviceable? Or is it the fact that each deck and each tape has its own distinct sound?

Why, almost sixty years after they were first introduced and despite having been superseded by superior digital media, do analogue compact cassettes still hold such a place in the hearts of music lovers and gadget geeks old and young? They’re flawed! They’re tactile. They require care. They fit into the palm of your hand (or a jacket pocket). Very much like the human being that made a tape or passed it on to you, they have character.

They’re personal. They have personality.

Not so with an MD or a CD-R: although a private mixtapeCD would’ve still been burnt by a fellow human being, they all sound the same. Digital. Cold. Flawless. Bit-perfect and error-corrected audio reproduction like the mass-produced audio CD it would probably have originated from. And that, too was developed by a team under the auspices of Lou Ottens (this time in cooperation with Sony).

Urban legend has it that the dimensions and capacity of a CD (12cm diameter, capable of holding 74 minutes of music) was driven by Norio Ohga’s wife’s wish to have her favourite piece of music on a single disc side (a recording of Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting a 1951 performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Bayreuth). However, according to Lou Ottens and ex-Philips engineer Kees Schouhamer Immink, the original design called for a mere 60 minutes on a disc that should be 11.5cm — the diameter of a cassette.

115mm cassette vs. 120mm CD

And thus the Compact Disc was named after the Compact Cassette.

Lou Ottens is dead. Long live the cassette!

Photos by hmvhDOTnet unless specified otherwise.

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