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Reeling in the years - the cassette tape turns 50
Culture & Life

Reeling in the years - the cassette tape turns 50

3 min. 13.09.2013 From our online archive
Originally conceived as a means of recording dictation, the humble cassette tape went on to become one of popular music's greatest innovations and Friday celebrated its 50th birthday.

(AFP) Originally conceived as a means of recording dictation, the humble cassette tape went on to become one of popular music's greatest innovations and Friday celebrated its 50th birthday.

It's hard to believe that the audio cassette tape is celebrating its 50th birthday or that without it, the world could have been robbed of some of the most important and influential albums of the 20th century.

Everything from The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" to the whole of Nirvana's seminal "Nevermind" album came into being because of audio cassette recording, and the little object's abundance and flexibility made it as crucial to creating demos and snagging a recording contract as digital recording, mp3 files, the iTunes Store and pre-installed mixing software are today.

As well as making the creation of music affordable enough for Post-Punk and New Wave bands to emerge in the UK and the US at a time when unemployment was rife and the future seemed bleak, their portability and ease of use led to the creation of another icon -- the Sony Walkman.

The first personal stereo also celebrated its 34th birthday this year and, like the cassette itself, is still in production. Taking our music collections with us wherever we go and sharing our favorite songs with friends all have their roots in the true portability of the audio cassette. Building tracklists on Spotify or YouTube or burning a CD for a long family car journey are simply an evolution of the humble mixtape that allowed young couples of the 1970s, 80s and 90s to flirt and which took hip-hop out of the yard party and ghettos and into the clubs.

But as well as music, the cassette was the forerunner of the floppy disk and provided the gateway for a whole generation of software designers and computer games developers to demonstrate their creativity and kick-start the market for personal computer and, later for games consoles.

Even today, when the devices, formats and ways of behavior it has spawned should have consigned it to the technological graveyard and to a plot alongside the Betamax, the Mini Disc and the eight-track cartridge, the cassette is somehow holding on. In the US there is a growing number of underground and ‘edgy' recording labels that release music exclusively on cassette. And even Universal, one of the world's largest labels has been dabbling in cassette releases. It recently released a limited run of 4000 cassette copies of celebrity poetry album "Words for You," exclusively for the UK market.

And of course, for amorous couples the only way to show a significant other how much they mean is to actually sit down and physically curate and record every moment of a mixtape on a tape. Anyone can put a track list together in iTunes and click ‘Burn a CD'.

A brief history

1963

On September 13, 1963, Philips launches the first audio cassette tape. Its poor fidelity means that it is only suitable for voice recording and is marketed as a dictation device aimed at secretaries.

1968

TDK launches the TDK Super Dynamic, the first cassette aimed directly at the hi-fi market.

1976

Apple launches the Apple I, the world's first complete home computer. It featured an optional cassette interface for loading software and applications. By 1977, the data cassette became a standard feature on home computers.

1979

Sony launches the Walkman, initially marketed as a music sharing device because it has two headphone ports. It quickly establishes the personal stereo market that continues today with everything from standalone mp3 players to smartphones and phablets.

In the same year Tascam launches the first four-track and eight-track tape-based recorders for home-studio use.

1982

First compact disc player become commercially available.

1993

Sales of music CDs overtake those of albums recorded on cassette for the first time.

2001

Apple launches the iPod.