Date: 30 August 1963Designer: Lou Ottens, PhilipsCost: Blank C90 on eBay for around £1
Over the past half-century there have been several dominant consumer audio playback media in both the analogue and digital spaces. But none can have been held in such nostalgic affection as the compact cassette. It was a technology that ushered in an era where for the first time we could make amateur home audio recordings, copy (for the most part illegally) other people’s record collections and even distribute our own music.But the cassette wasn’t intended to become a household product, and its early designers never entertained the idea that it might reach such quality that we’d be listening to albums on portable playback devices like the Sony Walkman. Early designs concentrated on producing a blank medium that could be used in dictation machines, or for making computer back-ups. Until this point tape recorders had been ‘reel-to-reel’ and were mostly found in recording studios.
The advantage of the compact cassette was that it brought the separate supply and take-up reels into one enclosure. There was no messing about with complex set-up procedures: you put the cassette in the machine, pressed ‘play’ or ‘record’ and the magnetically coated plastic tape did the rest.
Although ideas for a compact tape existed for decades, it was the Dutch technology company Philips that was to launch it at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963. The design team, led by Lou Ottens, had created a classic that was to lead to the development of playback machines by 85 manufacturers by the end of the 1960s. Despite pre-recorded cassettes being available as early as 1966, the audio quality wasn’t good enough to compete with either the eight-track stereo cartridge or the vinyl record until the next decade.
As with many other products of that era, the main design criterion was portability. Just as the introduction of 35mm film had allowed cameras to become smaller, the self-contained audiocassette allowed the miniaturisation of tape players. Initially their sonic capabilities were limited, but Philips wasn’t trying to match the fidelity of studio machinery with its thick track widths and fast tape speeds. And, of course, the cassette never did.
Despite the availability of a variety of tape lengths, the consumer quickly settled on the C60 and C90 formats: the former was ideal for recording half-hour radio programmes, and the latter for standard 12in vinyl music albums. Shorter tapes were less popular because of their lack of storage, while the C120 was universally disliked because the tape was necessarily thinner and more prone to the kind of mechanical malfunction that jammed up the player’s playback and record heads.
Of course, no-one ever violated the copyright laws, which is why in 1987 Alan Sugar was able to introduce a tape-to-tape machine. In his adverts he made the point that recording copyright material was illegal, but he was still hauled into court, where it was ruled that while Sugar had created the ‘power’ for people to act illegally, he had not encouraged them to do so. And despite the BPI’s ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ campaign, Sugar was let off the hook.
For technology observers, one of the most interesting things about the compact cassette is that it went through most of the classic phases of a product lifecycle in rapid and predictable succession. It replaced an expensive format, while inventing a market; it peaked dramatically as users realised that there were spin-off benefits to be had from an affordable and versatile product, and finally it was ousted by a better technology: the compact disc.