There are two things that humans truly dread: the unknown and absolute silence. We don’t have a solution for the first… or perhaps we do. Stephen Hawking called it God when he ran out of theories. As for the second, and luckily for our mental health, we were able to develop music: the art of combining sounds and tempo.
Its intangibility awakens our most primitive instincts like no other artistic expression. It may be this ethereal nature that has led us to become obsessed with “catching it” and taking it wherever we go.
The great pioneer of portable music and the father of the cassette tape was Louis Ottens, who passed away at the start of 2021. The music industry, as well as the pen industry -which were essential for rewinding tapes-, and half the world’s petrol stations, owe him a great debt.
Compact music: the breakthrough of the cassette
Before the arrival of the cassette, music was played back by other media. The most primitive were cylinders used by the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, or the improved version launched by Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta laboratory. The latter was converted into a registered trademark under the name Graphophone in the 1880’s and it popularised wax cylinders with grooves arranged in zig-zags.
Emil Berliner, the founder of the legendary Deutsche Grammophon, planted the seed to democratize music. He was the first to commit to disc format and patent it in 1887 (US 564686). The first units were made of shellac and, since the 1940’s, they have been made of polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as vinyl.
Berliner’s invention contributed to the rise of house parties, which had people dancing at 78 rpm. This revolution gained even more momentum when rock and pop popularised 33 and 45 rpm discs in the middle of last century. The general public began to buy LPs, EPs, singles and maxi-singles. However, carrying them around was still difficult. And to be honest, not everyone could afford them. Tape recorders and their reels of magnetic tape shared these same drawbacks.
In 1961, the Dutch company Philips set about creating the ideal format. On the one hand, it partnered with Grundig to develop a high-quality tape recorder in Vienna. On the other hand, from its headquarters in Hasselt, it entrusted the development of a small cassette (NL 6606263) to a group of engineers led by Lou Ottens. He was considered the father of the first compact cassette after solving the portability problem and making recorded music affordable and accessible (DE 1896300).
The Philips-Grundig relationship abruptly ended when Ottens’ device was presented at the International Radio Exhibition Berlin (known as IFA), which took place in the German capital in August 1963.
The breakthrough was so big that replicas quickly followed. Many Japanese electronics companies created their own version in different sizes. To ensure commercial hegemony, Lou Ottens convinced Philips to license its design for free to Sony. The industry standard emerged from this unprecedented agreement between the two companies.
The golden age of “the tape” began in 1995 when it was mass marketed throughout Europe. Once it took off in the United States in 1966, half the planet fell for the delights of the MC (Music Cassette). In Ottens’ own words, “it was a roaring success from the start”. Luis González, CEO and founder of La Cassettería-Ciudad Oasis, located in Madrid, defines Ottens as “a true visionary. An old school engineer, always working with the public’s needs in mind. He made music pocket-size”.
Vinyl now had a clear and serious competitor. It was no surprise.
That small plastic case, with two tiny reels over which runs a magnetic tape measuring 3.81 mm wide, was full of possibilities on both sides (side A and side B).
Not only did it play what was recorded on it, but it also allowed the content of one tape to be recorded on another, as well as external elements such as the sound of the TV, jokes from family reunions, band practices in the garage, etc.
González notes that “it’s rise was also, in a way, the start of piracy, since it allowed us to record the radio and share copies with one another. However, we should always look at the positives. It gave us the chance to discover new music and artists quickly and cheaply”.
Musical and generational shift: the jump to the compact disc
The hegemony of the cassette only lasted until the mid-1990s, when the CD definitively took over use at home. Ottens is also one of the fathers of the Compact Disc. He advised on the reduction in size of the disc and obtaining a clearer sound. The Philips-Sony duo set the universal standard, the 12 cm diameter CD, in 1980.
This achievement was made possible because of the great strides that American inventor James Russell made in the field of digital reproduction. His move away from analogue was patented at the end of the 60s (US 3501586 and US 3795902).
The United Kingdom was the first country to confirm a rise in cassette sales. The “tape” is about to exceed sales of 100,000 units in the British Isles, a number which has not been seen since 2003. Classics like Queen, Bryan Adams or Pet Shop Boys have saved it, while new pop stars like Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga have added it for the first time to their launches.
Luis González, whose first cassette was a copy of Senderos de Traición by Spanish rock band, Héroes del Silencio, confirms that nostalgia is “here to stay. There is a resurgence in the physical. Streaming is cold and impersonal and the consumer is more aware of it. In Spain, the trend is slower, but last Christmas saw an uptick in tape decks in shops”.
Perhaps, in the near future, romances will once again blossom through song compilations (or mixtapes for millennials) recorded on blank 60 and 90 minute tapes.
It is undeniable that the historical significance of Lou Ottens’ invention will last forever. And they say that physical possessions aren’t important.
Do you remember your first cassette?
Our thanks go to the graphic collaboration and contribution of Luis González, CEO and Founder of La Cassetteria – Ciudad Oasis (Travesía de Conde Duque, 5, 28015 Madrid) in preparing this article.