In 1960, Dutch engineer Lou Ottens was busy at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium, trying to find a solution to the clumsy, large tape systems of the time. So he set about finding a more practical solution that was smaller and more portable. The result? A handy device called the cassette. The effect? Being responsible for helping soundtrack the lives of people across the world.
Philips then came up with the first radio and cassette recorder, later known as the boom box or ghetto blaster, which paved the way for innovation such as the Sony Walkman, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. This transformed how we experienced music outside of our homes and cars, as a close companion throughout our daily lives.
Alongside the music the cassette tape held, the product itself had a suite of sounds associated with the experience. If you are old enough to remember playing cassettes like I am, I’m sure you can easily transport yourself back to hearing the sound of putting a cassette into a player, the clunky noise of the eject button and the constant manual winding of the tape back into place when it got caught up in the player mechanics. The cassette tape is a symbol of nostalgia and the dawn of real musical freedom.
Of course, when Ottens (who died earlier this month at the age of 94) unveiled the first portable tape recorder and cassette it was for practical reasons – it was an easy-to-use recording and listening device. However, it quickly became a means of recording our own voices and sounds. It allowed the emergence of sampling and creating soundscapes, a concept that was later popularised greatly by artists such as Brian Eno in the 70s.