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