The origins of a hinged cassette box and Compact Cassette logo
One day I was browsing the Internet looking for early cassette tape recorders and found this photo on the Philips website. It shows the first compact cassette tape recorder, the EL 3300, along with the first cassette, EL 1903 and the packaging for the cassette, which is just a simple cardboard box.
This cardboard box surprised me. I thought that compact cassette came in a hinged plastic keep box from the day one, but this photo clearly shows that it did not, and neither did the familiar logo.
Where did the hinged box and the logo come from?
I searched for patents for compact cassette storage containers, but found only improvements of the original idea. I hoped to track down the original patent in one of the references to the “prior art”, but the oldest reference I came across mentioned patents from 1980s, and I knew that the plastic box was designed much earlier.
After some digging and helpful hints from other tech history enthusiasts I found a book by Uwe Sültz, in which he reveals that in the early 1960s Philips organized two competing teams to design a future audio tape cartridge: one group of engineers worked in Belgium, another in Austria. They did not know about each other, and by 1962 came up with radically different ideas.
The Belgian team created a two-spool cartridge similar to an earlier RCA design, but much smaller.
The Austrian group created a cartridge with a single spool hole (“Einloch”) in the middle. While the Belgian version came in an unassuming cardboard packaging, the “Einloch” cartridge came in a hinged plastic box.
Ultimately, Philips chose a two-spool design, which became the Compact Cassette. The only part of the “Einloch” design that made it into production was the packaging: Philips adapted the hinged plastic box for Compact Cassette sometime in 1964.
Philips introduced its cassette system in Europe in 1963 as Philips EL 3300, and in North America in 1964 as Norelco Carry Corder 150 — Norelco was the brand name Philips used in North America at that time.
The package comprised a tape recorder, a microphone — because the system was originally intended for dictation — and four cassettes, which, by the time the new system reached America, would come in familiar plastic boxes, but were not yet branded as Compact Cassettes, instead they were called tape cartridges, and the machine was described as cartridge tape recorder.
One of the tape cartridges included in the package was a demonstration tape for the tape recorder to introduce itself:
This is your Norelco Carry Corder speaking … What size reel do I play, you ask? Well, that’s where I’ve got you. I don’t. I’m a cartridge player. Just pop in a cartridge, and I’m ready to go.
In 1964 Philips used terms like “tape cassette”, “tape cartridge” and “compact cassette” all at once!
“Tape cartridge” was written in slanted typeface with now recognizable line linking the words. By 1965 Philips refined this idea to create the Compact Cassette logo, and made the format available royalty-free to whoever wanted to produce the cassettes. The cassettes would come in a hinged plastic box, which to this day is called “Norelco box” in North America.
The hinged plastic cassette case was adapted by Philips to reel-to-reel tape packaging in 1965.
In 1980s compact cassettes were still occasionally referred to as cartridges, the words for a long time were interchangeable.
In late 1980s cassettes and their packaging turned more stylish, no doubt inspired by the Sony Walkman, which quickly became an expensive centerpiece of urban fashion.
Fully transparent or smoked boxes showed off cassette design, rounded corners made the boxes more pocket-friendly, and overall tighter tolerances provided a reassuring click when closing them. Slim boxes appeared, and then the boxes that were slimmer still.
The slimmest container, Handi-Holder, was developed by Sony back in 1970s and was as thin as a cassette itself thanks to the trapezoidal cutouts. It had a limited run, and few have heard of it.
Gradually, manufacturers dropped the Compact Cassette logo in favor of a simple “audio cassette” label — by the end of 20th century compact cassette had become a dominant audio tape cartridge format.
This fiesta of colors and shapes ended when portable CD player became viable. Several years later solid-state digital music and streaming services killed both compact cassettes and CDs.
And this is how the history of a hinged cassette keep box with Compact Cassette logo ends.