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Lou Ottens, Father of Countless Mixtapes, Is Dead at 94

In these digital days, it may be hard to appreciate how radically Lou Ottens changed the audio world when, in 1963, he and his team at Philips, the Dutch electronics company, introduced the cassette tape.

“As the story goes, Lou was home one night trying to listen to a reel-to-reel recording when the loose tape began to unravel from its reel,” Zack Taylor, who directed the 2017 film “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape,” said by email.

Mr. Ottens was in charge of product development at the Philips plant in Hasselt, Belgium, at the time.

“The next morning,” Mr. Taylor continued, “a frustrated Lou Ottens gathered the engineers and designers from the Philips audio division and insisted that they create something foolproof: The tape had to be enclosed, and the player had to fit in his jacket pocket.”

the Philips Museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, said that when he conceived the idea of a cassette tape, he carried a wooden block in his coat pocket that was the size and shape of what he envisioned.

“His wooden block prototype was lost when Lou used it to prop up his jack while changing a flat tire,” she said by email. “However, we still have the very first cassette recorder he developed on display, a testimony to his foresight and innovation.”

The company unveiled the cassette in 1963 at a product exhibition in Berlin. The old saying about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery was quickly proved.

“Our cassette was extensively viewed and photographed by the Japanese,” Mr. Ottens told an interviewer in 2013. “A few years later, the first Japanese imitations came, with a different tape format, different dimensions, different playing time. Not shocking, but too many hit the market. Then it becomes a big mess.”

Philips made its licensing available free, largely at Mr. Ottens’s urging, and its version of the cassette soon became the standard.

“That’s the reason that it didn’t become obsolete too early,” Mr. Ottens said in the film, “and it’s taken 50 years to die.”

Philips says 100 billion cassettes have been sold worldwide.

After the cassette, Mr. Ottens worked on an unsuccessful videodisc project before shifting to the CD. And before that innovation was released, he had shifted his focus to Video 2000, a system intended to compete with VHS; it, too, did not catch on.

He retired from Philips in 1986. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

The makers of “Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape” took a romanticized view of the cassette and its importance to the countless people who made use of it in myriad ways, but Mr. Taylor said Mr. Ottens had a much more utilitarian view.

“Lou was never comfortable taking credit for the cassette, or for the incalculable impact it had on the history of music,” Mr. Taylor said. “What I saw as a deeply personal medium, Lou saw as a pragmatic answer to the cumbersome nature of the reel-to-reel.”

In the film, Mr. Ottens and three of the men who worked under him on the cassette project reminisce. Mr. Ottens still seems surprised by the impact of the little gizmo.

“We expected it would be a success,” he says, “but not a revolution.”

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