The passing of Lou Ottens marks the closing of an era. An audio man to the core, he stood at the cradle of the compact cassette at Philips and played a guiding role in the development and industrialization of the compact disc. For the book “Natlab,” René Raaijmakers visited him in 2011.
In the fall of 2011, Lou Ottens emailed me that “with some surprise,” he had received my invitation for an interview about his part in the history of the compact disc. He thought this history had already been explored to quite some extent. But if I thought that his additions made sense, I was welcome to come and hear “grandpa tell a story” in his home in the woods near Knegsel, a stone’s throw from the A67 highway.
It turned out to be quite an afternoon. Ottens had difficulty talking, pausing not only between sentences but also between words. But for his 85 years, he still had a good memory and was fresh in his mind. He put his own person in perspective in a humorous way. He was just a mechanical engineer, a country bumpkin and certainly not cut out for something as weighty as a PhD. He interspersed his stories with dry remarks like that.
Many publications portray Ottens as an inventor. He wasn’t. He was above all an innovator, someone who had a good sense of the music market and knew how to industrialize consumer electronics. Nowadays, we’d say he was a system architect, a man with an eye for technology, form, marketing and a good sense of how to involve stakeholders from his own team up to higher management, industrial partners and customers.
The impact Ottens had on the development of the compact cassette and the compact disc is undisputed. His role in the unparalleled success of the cassette has often been described, as underscored by the recent necrologies in newspapers such as NRC Handelsblad, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. However, if he hadn’t made the right decisions at crucial moments in the development of that other Philips blockbuster, the compact disc, the historical role of the Dutch multinational in music would have looked very different.
Born in Groningen, in the northern part of the Netherlands, Ottens was a go-getter. As a mechanical engineer, he had taken a completely different path to his position as technical director of Philips Audio than many technically trained academics within the company. They usually took the route to management via Philips Research, the “Natlab,” where after five or six years of research, they started making and selling products within the numerous industrial divisions.
In contrast, Ottens spent his graduating year in 1952 in the metal goods department at Philips, working on the lathes and milling machines. Standing out there, he was asked in 1958 to solve quality problems of LP player change mechanisms in Singapore. After solving these issues, which turned out to be related to the tropical humidity, he went on to lead Philips’ mechanization in the new factories in Hasselt. The engineer found himself in a world where hundreds of girls were assembling pickup heads, LP changers, speakers and other parts for tape recorders and record players.
Ottens was allowed to start thinking about process improvements in the brand new Belgian factories. That meant fighting competitors like BSR, Dual, Garrard, Grundig, Telefunken, Teppaz and Panasonic – Sony and Sharp were still nowhere to be seen. When electronic circuit boards made their appearance, Ottens saw an opportunity to greatly improve production. He went to work himself, drawing a circuit board for the amplifier of a recorder – something he said “any country bumpkin could do, even a mechanical engineer.”
Ottens picked up the new technology in Eindhoven, where product development was located for the main industry group Radio, Gramophone and Television (RGT). From 1958 on, he applied that knowledge to improve devices in Hasselt. He was even allowed to set up a lab there in 1961. It grew into the first production plant outside Eindhoven to design its own devices.
Although the RGT engineers frequently visited Hasselt to bring new knowledge, this wasn’t enough for Ottens. The factories were still sixty kilometers to the south and he found that product development on-site was much more effective. When he arrived at the top position in Hasselt in 1968, he carried on along the same lines. At that time, the number of employees had already risen to over three thousand. The following two years under his leadership, it would continue to grow to five thousand.
In the autumn of 1970, the then 44-year-old Ottens attended a meeting in the Klokgebouw building on the Strijp industrial grounds in Eindhoven. The main industry group, Electro Acoustics (ELA), had summoned everyone who was involved in media within Philips. The reason for the gathering was a development at Teldec. The Telefunken/Decca collaboration had presented its prototype TED turntable at the Berlin Funkausstellung a few weeks earlier. This device worked mechanically, much like LP players. It played discs eight inches in diameter (over twenty centimeters) with five minutes of video on them.
ELA wanted to know about Philips’ competitiveness and had asked the Natlab to come and talk about their new system for optical recording. However ramshackle the Teldec system was, the main industry group for professional electronics was concerned. Telefunken and Decca had a head start of years. It looked like Teldec would be able to sell video record players much sooner than Philips. A TED player in the living room and an extensive collection of mechanical picture records on the bookshelf would make the introduction of a Philips system much tougher, even if the company from Eindhoven would offer a more robust system.
Ottens was already enjoying prestige at the time. In the 1960s, he had played a leading role in the rollout of the compact cassette, a Philips standard that had taken the world by storm. As a newly arrived technical deputy director of audio, however, he was reviled by the engineers in his industry group. They were convinced that Ottens wanted to transfer all product development to the Belgian plants. Their boss had gained years of experience in Hasselt producing cassette decks and LP players and had seen the advantages of bringing development and production together. Now that he was in charge of audio in Eindhoven, they were sure that he wanted to continue that strategy.
The production engineers in Eindhoven feared losing their beloved toy: the development of hi-fi equipment. Behind Ottens’ back, they complained to their commercial director – Philips’ industrial divisions had two bosses at that time, one responsible for technology and one for commerce. Their new deputy was going to move all their work to Hasselt, they warned.
Their suspicions were correct. Ottens indeed wanted to make rigorous changes to product development, but he also realized that a serious uprising was imminent. In discussions, he admitted that the rumors were true, but he also made a promise to his technicians in Eindhoven: “We’re going to get rid of existing developments, but you’re going to make new products.” What those were? Ottens had no idea yet, he frankly admitted.
In the Klokgebouw, Ottens was introduced to the technology that offered him a way out: optical recording. The ELA symposium was a refreshing experience for him. Moreover, it was a home game. He knew almost everyone there, including the research managers at the Natlab. Unlike many division directors, he had maintained his relationship with these oddballs. Kees Teer, who also passed away recently, for example, had often helped with quality improvements to the compact cassette system in Hasselt.
Video Long Play
Ottens was intrigued by the mechanism the researchers from Piet Kramer’s optical group at the Natlab had devised to contactlessly read information from a disc as big as an LP. He immediately realized that contactless optical technology had the potential to succeed the LP, even though its horizon was very far away. After all, it would take quite an effort to introduce completely different carriers and players in a world that had hardly changed since the LP had seen the light of day in 1887. Music lovers wouldn’t easily give up their record collections built up over many years.
But the Klokgebouw meeting wasn’t about music. The big challenge was video. All the competitors had bet on it and Philips couldn’t stay behind. The Natlab hotshots told about the tracks with dimples and how a laser beam could read them. Black-and-white video playback was already demonstrated and Kramer promised color as well.
RGT management turned out not to have any appetite for this video long play, though. In the highly politicized Philips environment of the early 1970s, it didn’t want to put a penny into VLP. RGT was far too busy developing videocassette recorders and selling color TVs. They were riding the money train with televisions that were assembled for about four hundred guilders – all with parts manufactured by Philips itself – and that were sold in stores for two to three thousand guilders. Only after Natlab director Eddy de Haan had bypassed the RGT product division with a strategic move, did CEO Henk van Riemsdijk give the VLP development an independent status and its own budget responsibility – at the time, a unique feat within the company.
In the excitement, Ottens saw an excellent opportunity to give his rebellious engineers new hope. He offered his assistance to the Natlab. And so, in the basement of Natlab building WZ, the audio product developers set up a laboratory to create a device that would produce color television pictures. Thus, Ottens gave his morose mob a new challenge. Soon, some thirty researchers and developers were working on optical video players within what became known as the VLP project.
Ottens’ action led to a special and also rare relationship between product developers and researchers in the following years. Within Philips, this was far from obvious. Managers in the various main industry groups often looked down at the anarchist Natlab mob. Now, suddenly, there was a product division that saw the lab as an ally.
Ottens placed his tech crew in the Natlab research environment and a bustling activity developed around them. The audio developers were eager to move a few miles to their new lab in Waalre, even though at the end of 1971, everything was still focused on the great challenge of video – no serious development was being done on audio. In addition, research still operated completely independently. At the time, Philips researchers were able to pick whatever subject they liked. Ottens’ men weren’t in charge of them. But they did get all the research help they needed. The audio team involved researchers in their problems and that stimulated collaboration. Finally, a group of product men had arrived who didn’t behave arrogantly and who valued the contribution of the Natlab.
Both Ottens’ product men and Piet Kramer’s optical group sparked an energetic dynamic. Researchers were naturally drawn to an interesting new challenge like writing, reproducing and reading video. They had all the freedom to throw themselves into those kinds of subjects. Ten years ago, Ottens put it like this: “I have no idea who was directing all that. At the Natlab, you never knew exactly how many people were working on it. But that whole organization was happy to see how audio got involved. It was a fun subject and everyone who was asked for something went right to work. Anything was possible.”
An initiative taken by Ottens in 1972 proved that he was a seasoned audio man. While putting his product developers on the VLP, he had asked a few people to do a feasibility study on the possibilities of optical storage of music. In Kramer’s optics group, they had little respect for music at that time. Sound wasn’t seen as a major challenge by anyone in that group in the early 1970s. So Ottens could go his own way. “Let’s see what’s possible,” he told his team. They didn’t get any more instructions.
Ottens’ starting point was: a new music carrier. But a thirty-centimeter video record could store no less than 48 hours of sound, and he knew that would give record companies chills. More than an hour, which is about what would fit on an LP, wasn’t necessary. Ottens had never doubted that.
An additional advantage: both disc and playback device could be smaller, but still produce high-quality music. That such a thing would appeal to music lovers was a no-brainer to Ottens. He found LPs to be miserable things. A mere day after you had unwrapped them, cracks were already audible, no matter how carefully you handled them. The players were also sensitive to shocks.
Ottens could do all the research for a new audio system piggybacking on the VLP. After all, all the stops were pulled out for this. The optics, the tracking mechanism: everything was developed with video in mind. “So we were able to do the tests in the lee of the VLP. Hitching a ride on someone else’s big dream,” he said in retrospect.
In Hasselt, Ottens had seen the many successful examples of miniaturization. Every year, cassette recorders still broke sales records by the millions. He had stood at the base of that success, had been the driving force behind the development of a pocket recorder and was aware of the fickleness of the market. He knew such greats as Norio Ohga of Sony personally.
Ottens immediately saw the advantages of optical recording for audio. The market was there, the music was there, the record market was alive and something of higher quality was guaranteed to catch on. Smaller players would also consume less power. In short: it was bursting with advantages – Ottens had no doubts.
According to Ottens, the people from television didn’t understand audio. Their idea of a device that played discs with 48 hours of music was a dead end in his eyes. “Thirty-centimeter audio records, that was bullshit,” he said. “I saw no point in spending time on such a discussion. Combining audio and video was set up for failure.” In Ottens’ eyes, a hi-fi system was very different from a television, with a different spot in the living room. They had no relation to each other. Ottens thought that everything would be fine as long as he and his small team could piggyback on the large R&D stream.
Audio Long Play
In 1972, sound could only stand in the shadows of video. The main industry group for music was four times smaller than its video counterpart, but Ottens managed to get enough commitment there for his vistas. He was well aware that the LP and compact cassette would get a successor. Non-contact reading intrigued him, as it was free from wear and tear and thus kept the quality of a music collection high.
Ottens didn’t get in the way of his developers, but behind the scenes, the audio director did outline some key requirements. For example, the new device wasn’t allowed to be more expensive than a hi-fi player. The ultimate goal of what he called audio long play (ALP) was to banish the LP from the face of the earth. The music carrier had to be wear resistant, and the hassle with pickup arms had better be over, too. Furthermore, the signal-to-noise ratio had to improve significantly. At the time, record players still had trouble separating stereo channels. Ottens called it messy work.
Riding on the accelerating VLP developments, it took Ottens’ researchers relatively little effort to realize the first experimental ALP player based on a helium-neon laser. By the end of 1974, they were able to play the first optical audio record.
Until then, the focus was on analog storage. But in 1975, Ottens realized that this approach wasn’t the right one. At twenty centimeters, the records were rather large and the sound quality was poor. The cracking of the test records reminded him too much of LPs. The inevitable conclusion was that with analog information storage, small errors could never be completely eliminated. In this respect, audio is more sensitive to flaws than video images, where small imperfections are less noticeable to the eye. Ottens realized that he could no longer hitch a ride on the VLP and had to choose his own path.
In 1976, Ottens decided there was no escape. His ALP team started exploring the digital possibilities. It investigated various digital modulation techniques that year. With this choice, the now digital audio disc finally stepped out of the shadow of its initiator, the analog video disc.
After that, the compact disc slowly but surely took on the form that it would later take to the market: a player that uses a semiconductor laser to read information from a disc, convert that analog information into a digital code, which then leads, via mathematical algorithms and error correction, to high-quality music.