So, farewell then, [o-O]

My knowledge of product design starts and stops with Dieter Rams. Up until recently, I had no idea who Lou Ottens was or the extent of his impact.

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94The Guardian
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.” […]

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.

This is what an EL 3585 looks like, perfect for its time.

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.

I like the idea that it’s irritation and not necessity that’s the mother of invention. But as we’ve seen before, time is unstoppable, change is inevitable, people are fickle. As Things Magazine says, “How strange to have seen your invention lauded and adopted worldwide, before slowly and inexorably fading out of view, only to have a strange reemergence right at the end of your life.” At least he got to see 90.

Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, has diedNPR
The resurgence is driven by a mix of nostalgia and an appreciation for tapes’ unique status as a tangible but flexible format. For decades, music fans have used mixtapes to curate and share their favorite songs. Unsigned bands have also relied on them as a way to promote their music. Those who have used cassettes to quickly record music include the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who famously said he captured one of his band’s biggest songs in the middle of the night.

“I wrote ‘Satisfaction’ in my sleep,” Richards wrote in Life, his 2010 autobiography. Adding that he had no memory of writing the song, Richards said he woke up one morning to find that his Philips cassette recorder was at the end of its tape — apparently, he concluded, he had written something during the night. When Richards rewound the tape, he heard the song’s now-iconic guitar riff and his voice saying, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Here’s more from the man himself.

Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape – Documentary Film Trailer (2016)YouTube
Cassette inventor Lou Ottens digs through his past to figure out why the audiotape won’t die. Rock veterans like Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore, and Ian MacKaye join a legion of young bands releasing music on tape to push Lou along on his journey to remember.

Mixtapes are wonderful things, so evocative. Can clicking on a link to a Spotify playlist come anywhere near the feeling of being handed a mixtape?

‘Mixture of Jane’s trendy records!!!’: discover readers’ cherished mixtapesThe Guardian
Following the death of Lou Ottens, creator of the cassette tape, Guardian readers share the romances, friendships and discoveries his invention generated.

Rubbish mixtape: fan reunited with cassette 25 years after losing itThe Guardian
Stella Wedell was 12 when she took the tape on a Spanish holiday to listen to songs by the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Shaggy and Bob Marley on her Walkman. Wedell, from Berlin, lost the tape either on the Costa Brava or in Mallorca and was astounded when she spotted it a quarter of a century later in an exhibition by the British artist and photographer Mandy Barker, who specialises in creating pieces out of plastic marine debris.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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