The curious origins of Bluetooth's name

When Giulia came home from school today, she was anxious to tell me what she learned about a Viking King and his legacy. She told me the story of King Harald Gormsson, who ruled Denmark and Norway from c. 958 to c. 986. Harald is mainly known for introducing Christianity to Denmark and consolidating his rule over most Jutland and Zealand. However, what sparked my interest is that Harald was nicknamed “Bluetooth”, and, in 1997, the Bluetooth wireless specification design was named after him. The choice was based on an analogy that the technology would unite devices the way Harald united the tribes of Denmark into a single kingdom. Furthermore, the Bluetooth logo consists of the two Scandinavian runes for his initials, H (ᚼ) and B (ᛒ)1

The traditional explanation for his byname is that Harald must have had a conspicuous bad tooth that appeared “blue” (i.e. “black”, as blár “blue” meant “blue-black”, or “dark-coloured”). Another explanation is that he was called “blue thane” (or “dark thane”) in England (with Anglo-Saxon thegn corrupted to tan when the name came back into Old Norse).2

Another interesting tidbit is that, according to Bluetooth’s official website, Bluetooth was only intended as a placeholder until marketing could come up with something cool. Later, when it came time to select a serious name, Bluetooth was to be replaced with either RadioWire or PAN (Personal Area Networking). PAN was the front runner, but an exhaustive search discovered it already had tens of thousands of hits throughout the internet. A full trademark search on RadioWire couldn’t be completed in time for launch, making Bluetooth the only choice. The name caught on fast, and before it could be changed, it spread throughout the industry, becoming synonymous with short-range wireless technology3.

I’m a sucker for stories like this in which technology pays proper tribute to our past, without which it wouldn’t exist in the first place.

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