The home computer revolution, aided by the cassette

louottens_thumbIt’s hard to imagine the Commodore 64, or any home computer of the 70s and 80s, without its trusty cassette recorder. The cassette was for most of us the cheapest and in the beginning surely the only way of safeguarding our hours and hours of typing in of listings from magazines.
And who doesn’t remember the lengthy loading times, the advent of the “loader games” (basically games that you could play whilst the main game was loading), the turbo loaders to speeds things up a bit and the pre-game discussions and review of each other’s game collections until the dials on the datassette reached the final digit and the game was finally ready to play.

All this would not have been possible if it wasn’t for Dutch scientist/engineer Lou Ottens who, exactly 50 years ago, led a team of 11 engineers at Philips who were tasked to find a solution for the impractical and big tape reels of that period.
As Lou recalls, “I was looking for something that would adhere to these 5 principles: ‘it’ should fit easily in the pockets of your pants, had to be usable in a battery operated device, had to be cheap, had to be capable of music playback and recording, and above all, easy in use.”

The timing was just right for his invention of the cassette tape, as the golden sixties had brought music into everyone’s home thanks to affordable record players. The only problem was that lending someone your records was always something delicate and the vinyl was fragile, so some means to transport music without the risk of damaging it was definitely something that everyone wanted.

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In the Philips plant in Hasselt (Belgium), they could hardly keep up with demand. By 1970, they had 5.000 employees, dedicated to the production and shipping of that plastic wonder, the cassette.

Most of the competing technologies disappeared as fast as they appeared or did not yield the same benefits: the Videodisc (1976) was too heavy and could only be used for playback. The Japanese Elcaset (1977) was just not of the same quality as the Philips chromiumtape and the Digital Audio Tape DAT (1988), well, who used that?
When Sony released its Walkman, and every single car radio came equipped with a cassette slot, the sky really was the limit. In 1975 the cassette took 45% of the market share for music and in 1976 this number increased to 54%. In the mid-90s estimates showed a staggering 100 billion cassettes sold and it just kept going… until Lou himself invented something else in 1983 that would mean the end of the cassette era: the compact disc.

From the 90s onwards, the cassette kept losing market share and in 2008, Philips stopped all production of cassette players. The last car with an onboard cassette player rolled of the assembly line in 2010. Last year, 0.6% was be the market share of this once legendary item. An item that not only revolutionized the way music was distributed, but an item that was also instrumental in the breakthrough of the affordable home computers.

The end of the home computer era, just as the end of the cassette tape era is perhaps best summed up by Lou himself: “Every invention is doomed to disappear”.

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