Bluetooth is one of the most useful wireless transmission technologies today, great for file transfers and connecting portable speakers, headphones, wireless mice, and keyboards. But what is Bluetooth? Where did its unique name come from?
In a nutshell, it’s a short-range wireless communication technology that uses radio waves to transmit information, much like Wi-Fi. But where that wireless standard operates semi-permanent networks and can do so over a vast distance, Bluetooth is typically more limited and personal than that.
The term Bluetooth comes from the epithet of the 10th-century Danish king Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, who gathered the tribes of Denmark into a single kingdom through non-violent discussion, unified Denmark and Norway, and was renowned as a great communicator. No one knows the true origin of King Harald’s soubriquet, but historians speculate that he had a decayed or diseased tooth that rendered it dark in color.
When the founders of Bluetooth decided on a name for technology designed to unite otherwise disparate wireless devices, naming it after the person responsible for unifying Scandinavia made a lot of sense. They even made Bluetooth logo the combined Younger Futhark runes for his initials ᚼ (H) and ᛒ(B).
The origin story of the name Bluetooth
The year is 1996. Nirvana is king of the airwaves, Pokemon is everywhere, Bill Clinton has just won re-election, and the Yankees have won the World Series (much to the great chagrin of Red Sox fans). Alongside these cultural events, a cabal of tech luminaries was meeting in Lund, Sweden, at an Ericsson plant, to develop new short-range wireless technologies. The group included folks from Intel, Nokia, Ericsson, and more, according to an account written by Jim Kardach, a retired chief power architect at Intel.
According to Kardach’s account, he and Sven Mathesson from Ericsson had given a presentation on an earlier business trip to Toronto and headed out on a wintery pub crawl that evening.
“Being a big history fan, I would trade stories of history with Sven. Now, Sven knew lots about radios, but not too much about history, but he had read this book (which at a later date he gave me a copy) called the Longships by Frans G. Bengtsson and would relate the history through this story,” Kardach wrote. “In this book, a couple of Danish warriors travel the world looking for adventure, and the king during this time was Harald Bluetooth.”
Kardach dug into the quirky name and discovered later that Bluetooth united Denmark and Christianized the Danes. It seemed an ideal codename for a tech that would unify devices via short-range radio transmissions. But codenames are codenames, and product names are typically boring. The group ultimately settled on PAN or personal area network.
“About a week later, an emergency meeting was called,” Kardach continue. “The other member companies had performed a trademark search on the word PAN and surmised that this would be a poor candidate for a trademark: An internet search produced tens of thousands of hits. It turned out that no trademark search was done on the backup name (Radio Wire) and the only name we could go to launch with on short notice was Bluetooth!”
How does Bluetooth work?
Bluetooth works by sending information over ultra-high-frequency radio waves and operates within the industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) radio bands. It operates between the 2.4 and 2.485GHz frequencies, much like many Wi-Fi devices do, which can create problems with interference when both technologies are running simultaneously or if multiple devices are operating within the same area.
Wi-Fi operates asymmetrically (with one access point and multiple devices), while Bluetooth works symmetrically, with one Bluetooth device connecting to another. Users can connect up to eight devices on a single personal area network (PAN) — in the case of smartphones, it typically means connecting two handsets for file transfers, a smartphone to a Bluetooth speaker, etc.
Unlike Wi-Fi, Bluetooth connections do not use up your cellular data package because they aren’t transmitting data over the airwaves in the same way. Bluetooth is exclusively device-to-device transmission with no intermediaries.
Bluetooth typically operates over short distances to conserve power. Although Bluetooth can work within a 200-meter range, that is very uncommon, with most devices typically running within 10 meters of one another.
To make snooping on its radio transmissions more difficult, Bluetooth utilizes an adaptive frequency-hopping spread spectrum, which automatically changes the radio frequency as many as 1,600 times per second. Transmitted data is split into packets and then sent across the randomly-selected channels, avoiding any that are incredibly busy. Said anti-snooping feature is just one area that has improved through successive generations of Bluetooth technology.
What uses Bluetooth?
Although initially designed with a specific use in mind, Bluetooth today is used in many devices for sending data across short distances. Your wireless speaker and wireless headphones communicate with your smartphone or home hub using Bluetooth technology. If your car is only a few years old, it likely offers Bluetooth connectivity to its sound system — although adding it to older cars is easy, too.
Most laptops come equipped with Bluetooth built-in to make it easier to connect wireless peripherals like keyboards, mice, and, in some cases, printers and scanners. Desktop PCs sometimes have it, too, but you’ll often see Bluetooth added to them via a USB dongle.
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More recently, devices featuring the internet of things (IoT) have begun to support Bluetooth technology. It can be a low-power way of keeping them connected to a central hub or mobile device. However, they are also likely to be connected via your Wi-Fi network, especially if it’s powered via an outlet.
Bluetooth was first conceived in its abstract form in the late 1980s but wasn’t realized into an actual technology until l 1994.
Bluetooth 1.0 was iterated upon as 1.0a and 1.0b in 1999 to correct some minor problems, and again as version 1.0b + CE in 2000. That same year, the first Bluetooth-equipped mobile phones, PC cards, and laptops were released. More products would follow in the ensuing years, including the long-desired Bluetooth headset, which helped kick-start the development of the standard in the first place.
The Bluetooth 2.0 standard was revealed in 2004 and introduced Enhanced Data Rate, which improved transfer speeds to up to 3Mbit per second. It also lowered power requirements, which would be a continual aim of Bluetooth developers in the years to come.
Speeds were again improved by Bluetooth 3.0 in 2009, increasing theoretical data rates to 24Mbit per second. However, it and its successor, Bluetooth 4.0, both leveraged the 802.11 standard (more commonly used in Wi-Fi) for the fastest transfers.
Arguably the most significant upgrade with the fourth-generation of Bluetooth came with version 4.2: Bluetooth Low Energy. Today, most smartphones around the world support the standard, and it allows for similar coverage and similar bandwidth while making significant reductions in power requirements for data transmission — by between 50 and 10,000, depending on individual use. Said innovation not only reduced Bluetooth demands on user-controlled devices, but made it easier for portable speakers, fitness trackers, and IoT devices to operate for far longer between charges.
Introduced in 2016, Bluetooth 5 provided improved security and greater flexibility for speed and range. Supporting devices can sacrifice one for the other, increasing either by two to four times if needed. Bluetooth 5.1 was introduced in late January 2019 and added a feature to help find the physical location of transmitting devices, which could help find lost items fitted with a Bluetooth tag. It could also trigger the display of relevant content and information in public spaces like museums. Version 5.2 was announced in January 2020 with features including LE Audio running on Bluetooth LBE, an Enhanced Attribute Protocol, LE Isochronous Channels, and Power Controls.
One of the core tenets of Bluetooth technology is that they are all backward compatible. Any modern Bluetooth device, no matter which version it supports, will also support devices using the previous versions of the technology.