Lou Ottens was a natural tinkerer. He was born in Bellingwolde, the Netherlands, where his parents, Frederika (Sievers) and Jan Ottens, were both teachers, but grew up in Hilversum after his father took a job directing the regional employment bureau. During the second world war, Lou Ottens built his family a radio to pick up the free Dutch Radio Oranje, complete with a directional antenna he called the "Germannenfilter" that could get around the Germans' jamming of the signal.
He graduated from Delft Technical University in 1952, and took a job at the Philips factory in Hasselt, Belgium. In 1956 he married Margo van Noord, and in 1960 became director of product development. The portable tape recorder followed in 1961, just ahead of the cassette.
A short film clip of a 1979 interview with Lou Ottens in which Ottens introduces the Compact Disc
In 1963 Philips introduced the compact cassette and then in 1983 introduced the compact disc. Few people know that the man behind both the cassette tape and the CD is the same: Lou Ottens. 'We spent years with ten to twelve people developing of the cassette. And many people were also involved in the CD.'
Between 1972 and 1979 Lou Ottens, as director of the Audio division in Eindhoven, was responsible for the development of the compact disc. In and early stage of the development of the picture disc, Philips realized that it also lent itself perfectly to audio. The use of laser technology offered the prospect of better sound quality and a sound carrier that suffered less from wear and tear than the gramophone record.
Lou Ottens realized that the music industry was not waiting for a sound carrier of the format that the VLP had (Ip format). 'What are you going to do with a record that fits 48 hours of audio? We knew that the record industry was not interested in more than one hour of music. So then in the course of 1972 I put a few people together to do experiments with a smaller disc. The assignment was to try it out with a 7-inch (17.8 cm) record, the size of a single.
With this innovation too, just as with the compact cassette, Lou Ottens was again aiming for the most compact system possible. 'The gas laser of the VLP player was too expensive and too large for the device we had in mind. So then we called on the research department, which was already developing a solid-state laser.'
From left to right: Willy Leenders, Hugo Vananderoye and Lou Ottens
The final format
Experiments showed that the still analog predecessor of the CD, with pits of various sizes, gave too much noise to compete with the gramophone record. Then we came to the conclusion that we had no choice but to go digital, puts Lou Ottens. 'That was probably in 1976. We then started digitizing with research. By 1978 we had a model we could demonstrate to the board of directors.'
The disc had to be about the same in diameter as the audio cassette. So too was the name compact disc and deliberate reference to the successful compact cassette. 'My last activity for Philips' audio department was that in March 1979 I traveled with a club to Japan to demonstrate the CD. I went with my colleague Joop van Tilburg and technicians Joop Sinjou and Hans Mons. In fact, that was a repeat of the trip we made in 1966 with the cassette.
Even during the visit to Japan, the Philips delegation received an offer from Sony to further develop the system together. Among other things, Sony had a decisive influence on the final format of the CD: 12 cm instead of the 11.5 cm conceived by Lou Ottens. The story goes that Ohga, now vice president of Sony, would have insisted that the disc be large enough for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Lou Ottens shrugged. 'The version of the ninth that I have here in the house is shorter than an hour and would have easily fit on an 11.5-inch CD. So I think that statement is implausible.'
Other former Philips engineers have claimed that the desire to make the disc slightly larger was a deliberate delaying action by Sony, in order to be somewhat stronger against the Dutch electronics group at the time of introduction. Lou Ottens wisely keeps a low profile. 'I cannot judge that very well, because I was no longer involved at the time.' Sony introduced the system on November 1, 1982; Philips followed on March 1, 1983.
In 2016 Lou Ottens appeared in a film, Cassette: A Documentary Mixtape, which debuted at the East End film festival in London. The director, Zack Farmer, likened the creation of the cassette to “trying to paint a masterpiece on a postage stamp”, but for Lou Ottens it was a simpler experience. “We were little boys who had fun playing,” he said. “We didn’t feel like we were doing anything big.”
Margo died in 2002. Lou Ottens is survived by their daughters, Arine and Nelly, and son, Jan. Lou (Lodewijk Frederik) Ottens, engineer and inventor, born 21 June 1926; died 6 March 2021.