Lou Ottens, the Dutch engineer credited with inventing the cassette tape and playing a major role in the development of the first CD, has died aged 94 at his home in the village of Duizel in North Brabant.
As product development manager at Philips, Ottens twice revolutionised the world of music, but he remained modest to the end. “We were little boys who had fun playing,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we were doing anything big. It was a kind of sport.”
Ottens, born on 21 June 1926, showed an early interest in engineering, building a radio as a teenager through which he and his parents could receive Radio Oranje during Germany’s wartime occupation of the Netherlands. He equipped the device with a directional antenna that he called a “Germanenfilter” because it could avoid the jammers used by the Nazi regime.
Following the war, Ottens obtained an engineering degree, and he started work at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, in 1952. Eight years later he was promoted to head of the company’s newly established product development department, and within a year he unveiled the EL 3585, Philips’s first portable tape recorder, which would go on to sell more than a million units.
But it was two years later that Ottens made the biggest breakthrough of his life – born out of annoyance with the clumsy and large reel-to-reel tape systems of the time. “The cassette tape was invented out of irritation about the existing tape recorder, it’s that simple,” he would later say.
Ottens’s idea was that the cassette tape that should fit in the inside pocket of his jacket. In 1963 the first tape was presented to the world at an electronics fair in Berlin with the tagline “Smaller than a pack of cigarettes!”
Ottens did not back the recent resurgence of the cassette tape. Photographs of the invention made their way to Japan, where substandard copies started to emerge. Ottens made agreements with Sony for the patented Philips mechanism to be the standard.