Gadgets… Be Gone!

The defining elements of the 1970s included disco music, bell-bottom pants, and really big sunglasses. You had block-long lines at gas stations thanks to the “Energy Crisis”, President Nixon’s resignation because of Watergate, and the long-overdue wrap of the Vietnam War. People preferred their clothes and cars in bright colors, their hair shaggy. I don’t remember much of this stuff, since I was only a budding teenager. But I’ll never forget my very first audio cassette tape deck.

90 minutes of songs in your pocket

You’re seeing obituaries in the news these days for noteworthy people of the 1970s.  Fifty years ago these people were generally in their thirties or forties; a reasonable age to invent something.  So it didn’t surprise me to read about Lou Ottens, who died in March at the age of 94.  Ottens was an engineer for the Philips Corporation.  Never knew him, never heard of him, but I’m forever grateful he invented the compact cassette audiotape.

[Millennials, roll back the clock on music media.  From your digital subscriptions, pass through Blu-Ray and DVD, then compact disc (CDs), until you finally land in the 1970s and the compact cassette audiotape.  If you made it to long-play (LP) vinyl records you went a little too far.]

Cassette tapes were a sensation in the 1970s because not only were they pants-pocket-portable, they were recordable.  Me and my cassette deck spent many an afternoon capturing Top-40 hits off the local FM radio station (Barry Manilow!  Helen Reddy!)  Then I’d store my precious cassettes in their little suitcase, which could hold twenty or thirty inside plastic cases.  Add in the invention of the Sony Walkman at the end of the decade (the first handheld cassette player) and you’ve got a broad overview of 1970s music media.

1970s chic

I did have a Walkman somewhere along the way, but the better memories come with my tabletop cassette deck (like the one shown here).  It lived on the desk in my bedroom, with its square speaker and giant pushbuttons, a precursor to today’s boom box.  It ate the occasional cassette tape with relish, and background noise always accompanied recordings off the radio, but my tape deck was still fairly state-of-the-art for the 1970s.  It only weighed a couple of pounds including the four C batteries.  The pop-out handle made for easy carry.

Lou Otten’s passing speaks to how many inventions, no matter how novel or cutting-edge, are sooner or later kaput.  Like the wax occupants of Madame Tussauds, you know your useful life has passed when you’d be better off in a museum.  So how about a few more inventions from my childhood years – once useful but now “almost gone”?

1960s

  • magnetic stripe card (smartphones are saying, “move over”)
  • plasma display panel (PDP)
  • handheld calculator (just ask Siri now)
  • 8-track cartridge (whoa, that’s ancient history)
  • Liquid Paper
Soon to be kaput

1970s

  • Pong (one of the earliest arcade video games)
  • floppy disk (removable computer file storage)
  • portable GPS device
  • cell phone (audio calls, nothing else)
  • videocassette recorder/player (VCRs)
“Floppy” file storage

I was just as curious to check out the decades of my parents’ childhood.  What inventions from their formative years are no longer?

1930s

  • Polaroid photography (in its original form)
  • IBM electric typewriter
  • coin-operated parking meter (now accepts credit cards)
  • drive-in movie theater (making a COVID-era comeback, perhaps?)
  • twist-tie (now built into your kitchen trash bag)

1940s

  • aerosol spray can (can we at least agree, these need to go?)
  • Slinky and Silly Putty (not today’s child’s toy of choice)
  • atomic bomb (let’s just pretend these are obsolete, shall we?)
  • lp phonograph record
  • jukebox
Early-model boombox

Last summer I went through a few neglected boxes in the garage and found a few of my old audiocassette tapes.  I keep a still-kicking boombox in the garage (for AM radio baseball games), with a dusty cassette tape player in the middle.  One afternoon I popped in one of those old tapes, pressed PLAY, and behold: John Denver was alive and singing again.  The music was as crisp and clear as 1970.

So give it up for Lou Ottens.  Not only did he design audiocassette tapes, he designed those little guys to last!

Some content sourced from the Hackaday.com article, “RIP Lou Ottens, Developer of the Compact Cassette and More”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

24 thoughts on “Gadgets… Be Gone!

  1. Hi Dave, you seem to have a small time warp in your post – the Compact Disc was introduced in 1982, not the 1960s. If it had been, the Columbia Record and Tape Club would not have been a hit! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In the early 80’s I worked as a equipment maintenance tech for Dysan – one of the bigger disk manufactures in Silicone Valley at the time. I fixed the machines that made and tested those plastic cases.

    I was so good that I got promoted from the older 8 inch production side to the new, fancy, better 5.25 inch line.

    Then we all got laid off when some dude in another state came up with the 3 inch disk … sigh …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I played drums on a band in the 1990s and we taped our gigs on cassette tapes using exactly the kind of deck pictured in your blog. I just digitized them and they still sound great! Like you, I used to hold a microphone up to the radio to record songs when they were played. But I predate you a bit — for me, it was a small reel-to-reel tape recorder and AM radio! This was a fun blog post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There was something magical about capturing music off the radio, then being able to play a song whenever you wanted to. I forgot about the external microphone – essential for a good recording!

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  5. Dave I still have a box of cassette tapes and a Sony Walkman…..I’m keeping them until they achieves museum status. Also have some LP’s from the 70’s and a box of CD’s too….and a vintage Sears turntable/cd/cassette player that I bought back in 2000 which plays all three. As they’re all in the basement and I’m seldom down there they don’t any use. I also kept an old boom box in the garage for outside….it’s covered with dust so that’s how often it’s used. I remember taping off the radio too….especially at New Years when they would play the Top 100 Countdown of the past year, so you knew you would get some of your favorites hits.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joni, I’d say you’re prepared for the apocalypse! (Now I know where to go when everything really starts to go downhill – your basement) 🙂 At the least, you still have plenty of “real” music to fall back on so good for you. Most of what I hear ON the radio today is what makes me want to turn the radio OFF.

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  7. I have a drawer full of cassette tapes a cousin made for me of 50s and 60s songs. He’s older than me and most of those songs from the 50s were new to me. No longer have any way to play them, but I can’t toss them – they were custom made and treasured. I do have an original Lisa, the prototype for the Apple Macintosh, given to us by a client. Perhaps that will be a museum piece someday?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. [Well I’ve gotten to May 27th in my quest to catch up in Reader. :)] I really liked this post as I remember a lot of these items and still have some items. Our Dictaphones are made by Phillips, though I seldom use the one at the house anymore since most of my remote work is done by my boss drafting by hand writing or doing a draft in Word.

    I’ve never progressed to Blu-Ray nor DVD players for music but still have my cassette player (one like you featured and also one that is a headset). My mom and I would go back to Toronto four or five times a year to visit my grandmother and aunt who lived together. We’d celebrate Christmas when we visited in November for my grandmother’s birthday. We took the cassette recorder and always recorded opening presents and then listen to it afterward. Downstairs are several years of those tapes and I can’t bring myself to get rid of them as all three have passed away. It might be eerie and also sad to hear the voices after all these years. I had an 8-track player too. I never had an i-Pod … I think sometimes I am a dinosaur. In fact, I have a 3G flip phone and AT&T is forcing “sunset on 3G phones” which required me to get a 4G flip phone. Today I wrangled the covers off to try to change the SIM cards, but must go into the AT&T store. Second time this has happened – I just replaced the 2G phone three years ago.

    My father was a tool-and-diemaker and as a kid I remember after dinner was over, my mom did dishes while I sat in my chair doing homework and my father in his chair would have the slide rule out doing computations to make dies. One day he brought home a Texas Instruments calculator. It was pricey at the time as I remember he worried if it was worth it to make his life easier and give him his evenings back – one little gizmo costing so much back in the day. I recall him saying that a couple of buttons could solve his die dimensions problems in what took hours on the slide rule. Thanks for the time travel Dave.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh those TI calculators were impressive! I remember having one for high school trig or calculus and not beginning to understand all of its capabilities. The user manual was bigger than the calculator itself. Some of them even printed! Like you, Linda, I try to get as much life out of my electronics as possible. I’m not one of those who upgrades as soon as a new version of something comes out. I think I’ve owned five mobile phones since cellular technology was first introduced (caving to the iPhone only recently). As for video/audio recordings, I find several where I wonder why I went to so much trouble to record them (ex. daughter’s volleyball games). Like you, I will never part with them as long as they are “playable”. Great idea to record your Christmases! We have several on video ourselves, when our kids still believed in Santa. Priceless.

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  10. Ah, the humble but amazing cassette. I was an LP guy but splurged on an inexpensive cassette deck for my car in 1979. Suddenly my music was all portable- so long as I was willing to record each new album on a blank cassette. I still have a file cabinet drawer full of cassettes ful of music from the LPs I never play.

    My last interaction with cassettes was using them as part of a Rube Goldberg setup involving a radio, tape deck and a timer to record an hour-long radio program 5 days a week. A series of 5 120 minute cassettes made sure I never missed an episode, which I played during time in the car. I know, how quaint, now that everything is available to stream.

    I have still not recovered from the horrible shock from the first time I heard my own voice on tape, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your comment about recording from LP to audio cassette made me wonder: were record players ever modified for this purpose or did we always have to record “through the air”? I know cassette decks were eventually upgraded so you could record directly from the radio (i.e. no background noise).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely. Early record players had outputs that needed to go through a preamp, but later models had direct outputs that could be plugged directly into speakers or a recorder

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The one I had at the time was in combination with a radio and had output jacks in the back. I recall that I had to buy a newer cassette recorder that had input jacks. Before then recording involved a mic and speakers.

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