The Bluetooth Viking and the Scattered Bones of King Cnut
The origin story of the name "Bluetooth" and the logo used for that technology is a fascinating tale, that connects Viking history, the English civil war, and a curious saga of scattered bones.
When you look back at history, it’s impossible not to see a Garden of Forking Paths, the fact that people who are now long dead have made choices that shaped our lives in unexpected ways. Every so often, I’ll be writing a post of a variety that I call “The Garden of Curiosities,” about a strange, interesting tidbit I hope you’ll enjoy reading. Sometimes it’ll be history, other times it’ll be an unexpected scientific finding, or an astonishing facet of politics, economics, anthropology, or evolutionary biology.
This is the tale of an ancient and long forgotten Viking king, the scattered bones of his grandson, a curious calamity during the English civil war, and the origin story for the name and logo of a modern technology that you’re likely to use today.
Around 958, Harald Gormsson became the Viking king of Denmark. As his name suggests, he was the son of King Gorm the Old (they just don’t name kings as well as they used to, do they? Charles III? C’mon.). There aren’t many sources from the period, but we do know that he was an accomplished builder of public works and engaged in various foreign adventures with varying success. (Just imagine Harald’s humiliation upon being forced to surrender not once, but twice, to the Swedish prince Styrbjörn the Strong).
King Harald is partly known to history for bringing Christianity to his kingdom. Initially skeptical of this newfangled God, one chronicle alleges that Harald was convinced to convert by a cleric named Poppa. Harald put Poppa to the test, daring him to prove his divine righteousness. Poppa is said to have placed a great weight of iron into a fire, then took it out, walked around holding it, and miraculously was not burned. (If you’re interested in such “ordeals” in medieval history and why they were a surprisingly rational way to determine guilt or innocence during criminal trials in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend reading this article, by the economist Peter Leeson).
But for our story, there are two aspects of Harald’s reign that matter most.
At some point, Harald suffered a devastating loss, but this time it was not a loss on the battlefield, but in his mouth. One tooth is said to have died, turning a blueish-grey color. In a time in which photographs didn’t exist and you couldn’t just look someone up on Google images to see what they looked like, distinctive features were used to describe prominent individuals. Harald “Bluetooth” was his new name, and that’s how he would be known to history.
Then, in 970, the king of Norway, Harald Greycloak—I told you the names were good—was assassinated. That meant that for a brief period, the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were united (though as this map shows, it wasn’t quite the vast expanse of land that those countries comprise today).
Map of Harald Bluetooth’s lands, courtesy of Wikimedia. His lands are in red, while allied vassal territory is in yellow.
Nonetheless, Harald Bluetooth had connected two empires—empires that until his reign, were deemed incompatible, unable to work together.
Now, our story fast-forwards more than 1,000 years. In the late 1990s, four major technology companies were working together to solve a common problem: lots of people were using computers and lots of people were using mobile phones, but they were incompatible, unable to work together, two separate kingdoms of technology. It was time to fix that, by inventing a way to unify them.
In 1997, Sven Mattisson of the Ericsson firm flew to Canada to meet with his counterpart at Intel, an American named Jim Kardach. They gave a presentation about their new technology, and it was met with a limp reception. Maybe it would work, but it didn’t seem to generate much excitement. The two men were undeterred, however, convinced that they mostly had a branding problem.
For some reason, nobody was enthusiastic about their product, which was variously called “Biz-RF, MC-Link or Low Power RF.”
Dejected after the meeting, the two men decided to go out for drinks. Kardach, a history enthusiast, took the opportunity to ask Mattisson about the Vikings. It dominated the remainder of the conversation, and at one point, Mattisson mentioned a long-forgotten Viking king with a dead tooth, a skilled communicator who was known for linking two kingdoms together. They had their codename: Bluetooth.
When it came time to decide on a logo, they decided to be true to the technology’s historical roots. They took the Viking rune for “H” for Harald, and the rune for “B” for Bluetooth, slapped them on top of each other, and the logo we still use today was born.
But the story doesn’t end there.
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