BY: JOEY REAMS
In today’s world, portable music is everywhere. Almost everyone can produce music from a device from your pocket, most likely your phone. One would laugh if a salesman were offering a phone that couldn’t play music from its speakers. It’s unheard of. On top of that, most people listen to their music with headphones, giving the listener the ability to wander freely without disturbing the public. Have you ever stopped and wondered what life would be like without this luxury? You would have to go back half a century ago when Lou Ottens was beginning to work on the first-ever cassette tape. We look back at his contributions to the music world after he passed away earlier this month.
The Beginning of Portable Music
Lou Ottens, a Dutch engineer, was born June 21, 1926, and trained at Technical University in Delft. Ottens started working at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, in 1952. Eight years later, he was promoted to head of product development. At the time, the only way to listen to music was through the record player at home. If you ever wanted to listen to music away from your residence, it would have to be at a live concert somewhere down the street.
Coincidentally, during this time, the music scene across America was changing. The 1950s saw the many genres stem out and bloom into their own. Rock and roll became more defined, and “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets became the first commercially successful rock song. Other famous artists at the time include Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and even Elvis Presley. Although the genres were slowly being defined, they were still categorized with other genres, such as rockabilly, blues, jazz, swing, and country. It wasn’t until the early 60s when America started to see rock bands, such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and The Beach Boys. At the same time, Ottens was busy developing the first cassette player.
By 1961, Ottens unveils the EL 2585, Philip’s first portable tape player. It was clumsy and required a sizeable reel-to-reel tape system that was tedious to work. This device would sell more than a million units. However, Ottens found great annoyance with his original design and believed it should fit inside the pocket of his jacket.
“During the development of the cassette tape, in the early 1960s, he had a wooden block made that fit exactly in his coat pocket,” said Olga Coolen, director of the Philips Museum in the southern city of Eindhoven. “This was how big the first compact cassette was to be, making it a lot handier than the bulky tape recorders in use at the time.”
In 1963, the Dutch engineer went to an electronics fair in Berlin and presented the world with the first tape, along with the tagline “Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!” Photographs of the invention eventually made its way to Japan, where replicas were created. Eventually, Ottens made agreements with Sony for the patented Philips device. This was his breakthrough success, as the device went on to sell more than 100 billion cassettes sold. Suddenly, people were making their own mixes and listening to them on the go.
“It was a breakthrough because it was foolproof,” Ottens said. “Everybody could put music in their pocket.”
The next decade saw the music industry explore from accessibility. Everyone who had a cassette player could listen and share their newest favorite band, whether that’s The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf, or The Rolling Stones. Teenagers made their own mixtapes and writing in their personal tracklist to give to their high school crush. Music was mobile.
Compact Discs are the Next Big Thing
Lou Ottens’ success doesn’t stop with the cassette player. In 1972, Ottens became the director of audio at Philips’ NatLab. This is where he would play a key role in the development of the compact disc, otherwise known as the CD. It would take about eight years and a collaboration with Song before releasing the 12cm Philips-Sony CD standard in March of 1979. This would be the nail in the coffin for record players during that time.
“From now on, the conventional record player is obsolete,” Ottens declared when production CD players emerged, as the BBC reported.
This development proved to be even more significant than the cassette player, selling double the amount of cassette tapes sold at the time with 200 billion. Once again, the invention came to life due to Ottens impatience with vinyl and even his own cassette player. He wanted to create something that would push the music industry into the digital age.
“Nothing can match the sound of the CD,” Ottens told the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. “It is absolutely noise and rumble-free. That never worked with tape … I have made a lot of record players and I know that the distortion with vinyl is much higher. I think people mainly hear what they want to hear.”
Since then, the music industry has been able to move with us. Stereo systems replaced record players. CDs replaced cassette players, which would eventually be replaced with SD cards, and then cell phones altogether. Now, it seems improbable to walk around without the ability to play music as you wish.
His Legacy is Carried With Us
Lou Ottens passed away at his home in the village of Duizel in North Brabant in early March 2021 at the age of 94. There wasn’t a mass gathering in his honor, nor did anyone dedicate a specific day to him, but that’s how Otten wanted it. Even to the end of his life, he held a modest approach to his revolutionary developments.
“We were little boys who had fun playing,” Ottens said. “We didn’t feel like we were doing anything big. It was a kind of sport.”
Ottens’s was highlighted once again in 2016 when he appeared in a film, Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape. The film, directed by Zach Farmer, debuted at the East End film festival in London. His wife, Margo van Noord passed away in 2002. Ottens is survived by their daughters, Arine and Nelly, and son, Jan.
Next time you’re out and about and want to drown the world away with your music, think about Lou Ottens and what he’s done for the music industry. Without his contributions and desire to keep music simple and portable, the world would be a much quieter place.