The inventor of the audio cassette leaves behind an enormous cultural impact and, frankly, it’s hard to think of how such a simple object could hold so many differing cherished memories to so many. Music is the soundtrack to your life, and the cassette tape was an incredibly accessible way for many to hold onto that like a lifeline.
Working as the head of Philips’ product development department, Ottens lead his team into developing the cassette tape that we know today, or knew yesterday at least.
Since they first presented it at the Berlin Radio Electronics Fair in 1963 it was almost instantly popular, and an estimated 100 billion cassette tapes have been sold worldwide.
You know how all the tech in Star Wars isn’t the focus of the story but it’s central, practical, tangible and also quite well lived in? Cassettes were that sort of vibe.
They weren’t fragile, and even if you had a dodgy cassette player, you could just fish the tangled unspooled ribbon out and twirl it back in with a pencil. No real harm done. This versatility made them perfect for sharing. There was nothing more romantic than a mix tape, sitting for hours on end creating a mix for someone you had a crush on. Making sure all the songs were in the perfect order. With your own handwriting on each side. We were all our own little curators and DJs. A gregariously social object or something personal and introspective.
Better yet, bootleg cassettes could introduce you to hearing worlds beyond your own experience, and promise you that there were other places to chase where you felt like you could belong.
Sure, it was the predecessor to the Compact Disk (something Ottens also helped to create) that had better sound and was easier to drag tracks onto, and could hold a couple of hundred mp3s. But those things scratched so easily it was always a fussy result.
Yes, better technology continued sweeping in. But for a moment, cassettes were everything. I have the voices of Primary School friends I am still friends with sandwiched between sped up versions of Bryan Adams and Mel C’s ‘When You’re Gone’ so the radio station could get to the ads quicker.
The cassette tape is where many of us heard our own voices for the first time, and probably recoiled. But what a gift to hear it in the first place. Technology so simple everyone could enjoy it. Slow yet immediate at the same time, and hands on like stone tools.
Cassette tapes were the dial tone of our hearts and memories.
Vale, Lou Ottens. You take our childhood and formative years with you.