For about 25 years, Compact Cassettes were the most sought-after consumer audio recording. Invented by Philips in 1962, the first few years saw a slow start before a huge boom in demand. The audio storage solution was designed to replace the pricey reel-to-reel recorders, and the cassettes did so to an impressive degree.
Philips had made the EL 3585 in 1958, this was the first battery-operated reel-to-reel portable recorder. The company sold over one million models. Philips R&D leader, Lou Ottens, was inspired by the success and wanted to make an even smaller version. His motivation eventually sparked the release of the world’s first audio cassette.
The makers consisted of a Philips team of about 40 designers and engineers lead by Ottens. They were given the task to make a recorder with playback and dictation features. And of course, portability was the highest priority. Philips didn’t necessarily want to surpass the quality of reel-to-reel, they just wanted to make audio recordings more accessible to consumers.
At the time, RCA was working on a “quick loading cartridge” proposal and Dr. Peter Goldmark from CBS had recommended a smaller 3.81mm single reel recorder (although it would have to be rewound after each play). The team combined both of these inspirations and made a smaller RCA cartridge equivalent on the proposed CBS tape size. The first prototype had a playing time of 20 minutes which eventually increased to 30 minutes before the technology was introduced at the Berlin Radio Show in 1963.
The Berlin Radio Show is one of the industry’s most influential tradeshows for electronics. The first annual event was in 1924 and continues today. Ottens didn’t expect a lot of hype at the show, and his theory was correct. The Compact Cassette wouldn’t see a huge consumer demand until the late 1960s.
By 1964, the Compact Cassette came to the United States. Philips wanted to become the standard cassette tape on the market, so when Sony pressured the company to license the format to them for free, and it was hard for Philips to say no. How else would the technology pave the way if other brands were going to make their own equivalent? The licensing was a success and competitors like Telefunken, Grundig, and RCA no longer proved to be as significant.
In 1968 the first car-compatible cassette was designed. As the 1960s came to a close, the cassette industry was worth $150 million. By the early 1970s, cassettes were the most common format replacing the LP records.
The Compact Cassette endured competition from the 8-track tape but in the 1970s the sound quality became equal to the 8-track and continued to improve. A cassette was also cheaper which helped with its booming popularity.
The invention of pocket recorders (such as Sony’s Walkman in 1979) facilitated even more growth in the consumer market now that users could listen to their favorite music on the go with headphones.
By the 1990s the cassette saw a drastic decline after CDs were introduced. All good things must come to an end, but that doesn’t mean the cassette didn’t make an impact. Between 1963 to 1988, Philips believes three billion Compact Cassettes were sold! Such demands mean most households probably have some cassettes hidden away in boxes. Do you still have your favorite tapes stored away somewhere? If you ever want to digitize your old cassettes, we can help!