50 years of the cassette – In 1963, Philips Electronics officially introduced the "compact cassette," which contained a length of audio tape approximately 3.15 millimeters wide that ran at 1-7/8 inches per second. It was intended to replace the bulkier reel-to-reel tape and be used for dictation, but over the next 50 years, it would prove to be far more versatile. Lou Ottens, shown here, led Philips' team.
Keith Richards' secret weapon – One of the cassette's early supporters was Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who bought an early machine to record off-the-cuff demos. He liked it so much that he used it to record the layered guitar parts for such songs as 1968's "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumping Jack Flash," overloading his machine for distortion. "I wish I could still do that, but they don't build machines like that anymore," he wrote in his memoir, "Life."
The 8-track challenge – For more than a decade, the cassette's chief competition in the portable tape market was the 8-track cartridge, invented in 1964. Eight-tracks were divided into four programs, each with two-track stereo (hence 8 tracks). Automobile manufacturers adopted the 8-track quickly, but the format had its flaws -- it wasn't rewindable and the programs sometimes split songs in two. By the late '70s, the cassette had won the tape war.
Forward motion – The car was a major driver of the cassette's popularity. Some cars had tried offering phonographs, but the needle would skip with every bump of the road. Cassettes were portable and easy to use. Suddenly, drivers no longer had to listen to their AM/FM radios, but could play tapes of music they liked.
'Is it live ... ?' – An ongoing problem with cassettes was fidelity -- they just didn't have the same capabilities as LPs or reel-to-reel tapes. But as the technology improved, manufacturers pushed to showcase the cassette's audio possibilities. One of the most famous ad campaigns was from Memorex, a tape manufacturer that used Ella Fitzgerald's vocals to ask the question, "Is it live? Or is it Memorex?"
Blown away – Maxell, another tape manufacturer, promoted its fidelity through an iconic photograph of a man sitting in a chair, literally being blown away by the quality (and probably the loudness) of his taped music. For years, makers such as Maxell, TDK and Denon touted the abilities of their tapes and the magnetic substances that coated them.
Tape snarls – There were drawbacks to cassettes. If your equipment was misbehaving, your tape could start unwinding in the machine, leaving you with a mess. The classic way to get the cassette back to normal was to stick a standard hexagonal pencil in a tape spool and spin it to tighten the tape back together. If the tape was broken, however, you were probably out of luck.
Singled out – The UK band Bow Wow Wow, led by 14-year-old Annabella Lwin, put out "C-30 C-60 C-90 Go," the first cassette single, in 1980. It was a celebration of taping that had a caustic edge: the lyrics promoted home taping, which record companies associated with piracy.
Arising from the Dead – The record companies weren't necessarily wrong. Many people borrowed LPs from friends and made their own tapes from them; others took their tape recorders to concerts and made bootleg live recordings, which were then traded or sold on the black market. At least one band, the Grateful Dead, turned the practice into a virtue, however. The Dead encouraged fans to tape their shows, leading to a thriving exchange that continues to this day ... though the technology has changed.