Lou Ottens died the other day at 94. You probably don’t know his name, but if you’re of a certain age, you’re likely familiar with his best-known invention: audio cassettes.
They were the first format to make it possible to take our music collections on the go, particularly in our cars. Now, instead of relying solely on radio stations for songs, we could install a cassette player in or under the dashboard, wire it up to the audio system, and listen to our favorite albums and mix tapes as we drove. Most of us didn’t have the technical know-how to do the installation, but everyone knew someone who did.
The other thing we all knew was the frustration of the tape getting caught inside the player’s machinery (usually because we didn’t eject it before turning off the car). This led to repeated shouts of “No! No! No! No!” as we slowly withdrew the cassette, hoping the tape wouldn’t break. If it didn’t, we used a Bic pen to slowly spin the little reel until the tape was back in the cassette. Most of the time, that wasn’t a problem. But more than a few of us ended up listening to songs with weird wows and flutters because the thin tape had gotten stretched in the process.
Fortunately, Lou Ottens came along again a couple of decades later to save us again, by contributing to the development of the compact disc, which soon made the cassette obsolete. As far as I can tell, he had nothing to do with eight-tracks.
Ottens was among those profiled in a 2016 documentary…