Audiocassette Is Introduced

The first self-contained audiocassette made it possible to record and repeatedly play back sound without threading tape, a major breakthrough destined to make audiotape competitive with long-play disc recordings in the music recording industry.

Summary of Event

The introduction of magnetic audio recording tape in 1929 was met with great enthusiasm, particularly in the entertainment industry, and specifically among radio broadcasters. Although somewhat practical methods for recording and storing sound for later playback had been around for some time, audiotape was much easier to use, store, and edit, and much less expensive to produce. Audiocassettes
Recording technology, audio
[kw]Audiocassette Is Introduced (1963)
Recording technology, audio
[g]Europe;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
[g]Netherlands;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
[c]Inventions;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
[c]Science and technology;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
[c]Music;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
[c]Manufacturing and industry;1963: Audiocassette Is Introduced[07430]
Pfleumer, Fritz

As early as 1929, Fritz Pfleumer, a German engineer, had filed the first audiotape patent. His detailed specifications indicated that tape could be made by bonding a thin coating of oxide to strips of either paper or film. Pfleumer also suggested that audiotape could be stripped to films to provide higher-quality sound than was available with the film sound technologies in use at that time. In 1935, the German electronics firm AEG produced a reliable prototype of a record/playback machine based on Pfleumer’s idea. By 1947, the American company 3M had refined the concept to the point where it was able to produce a high-quality tape using a plastic-based backing and red oxide. The tape recorded and reproduced sound with a high degree of clarity and dynamic range. It would soon become the standard in the industry.

Still, the tape was sold and used in a somewhat inconvenient open reel format. Users had to thread the tape through a machine and onto a take-up reel. This process made using audio recording machinery somewhat cumbersome and complicated for the layperson. Sound recording technology remained primarily a professional and industrial tool for many years.

In 1963, the first audiocassette was introduced by the Netherlands-based Philips Philips company company. This device actually embodied several innovations, each of which contributed to its immediate acceptance and extraordinary popularity from the beginning. First, the cassette could be inserted into a machine without threading. This was a convenience that reduced the amount of time and effort required to mount, search, and rewind a tape. Since there was no threading required, a tape could be inserted into a machine and played immediately. Rewind and fast-forward were faster, and it made no difference where the tape was stopped prior to ejection of the cassette. Open reel audiotape required that the tape be wound fully onto one or the other of the two reels to which it was attached during recording or playback before it could be taken off the machine.

Second, because refinements in the technical character of audiotape had resulted in highly dynamic sound reproduction capability, the width of the tape inside the audiocassette and tape running speed could be reduced significantly without sacrificing quality. This narrower tape could be encased in smaller, more compact cassettes, thus enhancing portability. Record/playback machines could also be designed to be smaller for portability, which made them useful in many applications for which bulky reel-to-reel equipment was impractical. Portability was enhanced further by significant developments in reliable low-voltage battery technology.

Third, the enclosed cassette protected the tape from contamination and wear through physical handling. Constant threading of open reel tape led eventually to worn tape, which affected the quality of sound reproduction. Finally, reduced tape speed meant that more sound could be stored on the same length of tape; by flipping the cassette over and playing its reverse side, that length could, in fact, be doubled.

The Philips company initially marketed the audiocassette in Europe, where it gained widespread popularity in the mid-1960’s. Its initial application was for monaural voice recording, although stereo cassettes were introduced, again by Philips, in 1966. Later, four-track stereo audiocassettes were introduced, an innovation that represented a striking leap beyond that available on the highest-quality vinyl recordings, which were limited to two tracks.

One of the most popular uses for audiocassettes was to record music from radios Radio;recordings of and other audio sources for later playback. During the 1970’s, the popularity of FM radio—characterized by higher fidelity audio than was available from standard broadcast, or AM stations—resulted in a new emphasis on popular music programming across the radio dial. Many FM stations developed “all music” formats in which entire albums by artists were often played without interruption. That gave listeners an opportunity to record the music for later playback on specially outfitted radios that included cassette recorder/players. These were the same devices that would reemerge during the 1980’s as “boom boxes,” mini sound systems often played at high volume on street corners for impromptu socializing. At first, the music recording industry complained about this practice, charging that unauthorized recording of music from the radio was tantamount to copyright infringement and therefore illegal. Eventually, the issue died down as the same companies began to recognize this new, untapped market for recorded music.

Soon after achieving success in Europe, Philips began to license other manufacturers to produce cassettes and related technology. This move would have the effect of expanding Philips’ success throughout the world.

Audiocassettes, all based on the original Philips design, were being manufactured by more than sixty companies within only a few years of their introduction. In addition, derivations of that design were being used in many specialized applications, including dictation, storage of computer information, and surveillance. The emergence of videotape resulted in a number of formats for recording and playing back video based on the same principle. Although each is characterized by different widths of tape—three-quarter inch, half inch, and 8 millimeter—each uses the same technique for tape storage and transport. As tape is spooled off one reel and wound onto the other, the space required by the first reel is reduced, and that same space is free to accommodate the increasing amount of tape on the other reel.

The cassette remained a popular means of storing and retrieving information on magnetic tape for more than a quarter of a century. During the early 1990’s, digital technologies appeared that made it possible to store information in revolutionary new ways, including on compact discs. This new digital technology eventually superceded audiocassette technology, although not displacing it altogether.


The cassette represented a new level of convenience for the audiophile, resulting in a significant increase in the use of recording technology in all walks of life. Even small children could operate cassette recorders and players, which led to their use in schools for a variety of instructional tasks and in the home for entertainment. The recording industry realized that audiotape cassettes would allow consumers to listen to recorded music in places where record players were not able to go: in automobiles, at the beach, even while camping. They recognized the potential for explosive growth in the use of audio technology.

They also saw the need for widespread availability of music and other information on cassette tape. The recording industry soon began distributing albums on audiocassette in addition to long-play vinyl discs, and recording sales increased substantially. This new technology put recorded music into automobiles for the first time in standard and eight-track formats, again resulting in a surge in sales for recorded music. Eventually, other forms of information, including language instruction and books on tape, became popular commuter fare.

With the invention of the microchip, audiotape players became available in smaller and smaller sizes, making them truly portable. Topping off a history already characterized by widespread acceptance and use, audiocassettes underwent another explosion in popularity during the early 1980’s, when the Sony Corporation introduced the Walkman, an extremely compact, almost weightless version of earlier cassette players that could be attached to clothing and used with lightweight earphones virtually anywhere. At the same time, cassettes were suddenly being used with microcomputers for backing up magnetic data files. Home video soon exploded onto the scene, bringing with it new applications for cassettes. As had happened with audiotape, video camera/recorder units, called camcorders, were miniaturized to the point where 8-millimeter videocassettes capable of recording up to ninety minutes of live action and sound were widely available. These cassettes closely resembled the audiocassette first introduced in 1963.

The introduction of the self-contained, self-threading cassette ushered in the era of the cartridge concept of magnetic information storage in computers in the early 1980’s. Just as the cassette provided a transport for moving tape, a similar concept was adopted for the storage and retrieval of digital files in microcomputers on small-format floppy disks. Many computer manufacturers designed products to work with cassettes that were inserted into disk drives to record and store computer files. Magnetic media housed in the cassettes was protected from potential damage through human handling in the same way that the first audiocassettes protected magnetic tape. This highly successful application of the cassette concept was extended to 35-millimeter camera technology in the early 1990’s with the introduction of still video photography. These cameras, similar in appearance to standard 35-millimeter cameras, initially employed digital cassettes to store up to thirty-six frames, but eventually became capable of storing hundreds with the addition of memory chips. Because images were captured digitally instead of on film, they could be transmitted over telephone circuits and other electronic media, making them extremely popular with newspaper editors, who could now send or receive photographs almost instantaneously, a remarkable convenience in a deadline-oriented industry.

When the history of recording technology is written, the cassette will certainly hold a lofty place in the list of significant innovations that have made magnetic recording a universally applied technology in the workplace and in the home, even as that technology gives way to the digital revolution. Audiocassettes
Recording technology, audio

Further Reading

  • Burstein, Herman. Questions and Answers About Tape Recording. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1974. Attempts to answer for enthusiasts the most frequently asked questions about audio recording.
  • Consumer Guide Editors. The Complete Guide to Stereo Equipment. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. A good reference for those desiring an overview of the available recording technology prior to 1980.
  • Crowhurst, Norman. ABC’s of Tape Recording. Indianapolis, Ind.: Sams, 1971. A layperson’s guide to successful audio recording in the home. A good book to place into context what tape recording was like before the 1970’s.
  • Dolan, Edward F., Jr. It Sounds Like Fun: How to Use and Enjoy Your Tape Recorder and Stereo. New York: Julian Messner, 1981. An introduction to electronic recording equipment; gives a nontechnical treatment of the subject matter; written for the layperson. For those unaccustomed to working with electronic equipment, it is a good overview of the subject. Illustrations, index.
  • Hellyer, H. W. How to Choose and Use Tape Recorders. Plymouth, England: Clarke, Doble & Brendon, 1970. A thoroughly technical treatment of various types of magnetic tape recorders and players. Contains a good chapter on portable tape recorders and a strong history of the evolution of magnetic media for storing sound and other forms of information. Index and photographs.
  • Lowman, Charles E. Magnetic Recording. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972. An excellent overview of magnetic recording as it has evolved over the years. Of particular interest are sections on applications of magnetic recording technology, including aerospace, science and medicine, and underwater seismology. The section on cassettes and cartridges examines audiocassettes, digital cassettes and cartridges, and videocassettes.
  • Morton, David L., Jr. Off the Record: The Technology and Culture of Sound Recording in America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000. As in his 2004 book, Morton examines sound recording technology. In this work he looks at the cultural aspects of recording sound, from office dictation to answering machines to audiocassettes, with a focus on how users—and the possible effects of use—often determine how and if a new technology is manufactured. Includes the chapter “The Tape Recorder, Home Entertainment, and the Roots of American Rerecording Culture.”
  • _______. Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A history of sound recording technology, with chapters on the “birth of recording,” cassette tapes, compact discs, online music, and more.
  • Overman, Michael. Understanding Sound, Video, and Film Recording. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1978. Contains an excellent history of the evolution of sound recording from the earliest days, long before electronic recording and reproduction. Primary treatment is of magnetic recording and the technologies associated with it. Index.
  • Stuever, Hank. “Unspooled: In the Digital Age, The Quaint Cassette Is Sent Reeling Into History’s Dustbin.” The Washington Post, October 29, 2002. A lighthearted but pointed look at the cassette tape by a cultural critic and journalist. Recommended. Available at
  • Zuckerman, Art. Tape Recording for the Hobbyist. Indianapolis, Ind.: Sams, 1977. A guide for home recording of sound on vintage and advanced recording equipment. Includes discussions of the various environmental and technical characteristics of sound recording.

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