On Black Friday, the day after US Thanksgiving, American retail shops unleash legions of deals upon consumers. As retailers attempt to milk more profits from consumers, a new tradition has arisen to induce people to shop online the Monday after Black Friday: Cyber Monday (or Cyber Week). This year, online retailers like Amazon, “celebrated” Cyber Week from December 1st to December 7th – and the sales totals are now in ($2.68 billion). So, in honor of Cyber Week – or simply as a way to bring you a tidbit of Viking history – here is the story of Bluetooth.
For those who quite understandably do not speak cybergeek, Bluetooth is a method (or communications protocol) that lets various electronic devices communicate with each other without using those annoying cables.
Devices like your mobile phone, laptop computer, iPad, and car use Bluetooth to connect to each other. Your smart phone uses Bluetooth to connect to wireless speakers and transmit music. Your wireless mouse or keyboard may connect to your laptop or desktop computer through Bluetooth. And, some cars let you hear phone calls over their stereo system with Bluetooth integration.
The name Bluetooth, and its distinctive logo, have their roots in Viking history. Way back in 1997, while Jim Kardach was co-developing the communications standard, he was reading Frans G. Bengtsson’s historical novel The Long Ships about the Vikings and King Harald Bluetooth.
King Harald (born c. 935 — died c. 986 CE) united the outlying tribes of Denmark. Harald was also known as “Bluetooth” or in Old Norse blátǫnn. There are several theories on how Harald acquired this nickname – the most common one being he had one blue or blackish rotten tooth. (The word for blue meant “dark.1 ”)
Seventeen years ago, mobile phones and computers didn’t communicate with each other very well. The goal of Bluetooth was to unite mobile phones and PCs the way King Harald united, or conquered, the tribes of Denmark and Norway.
A key theme in King Harald’s rule was unification – and perhaps it had to be. Harald’s father, Gorm the Old, was the first in his dynasty. Gorm united northern Denmark under his rule and Harald continued his effort. Presumably, in addition to a quest for greater power, centralization made defense simpler. The Norse lands were constantly at war.
Harald focused on creating systems of protection, including roads, bridges, and fortresses. He improved existing fortresses and built new ones – notably many of the (at least) seven “Viking” (or Trelleborg) ring forts in Norway and southern Sweden.
While Harald was attempting to continue his father’s work of uniting Denmark under one rule, Denmark may have been in a mixed state of worshipping the Old (Norse) gods and the new (Christianity). This is controversial among historians, but some have argued that German bishops may have been present in Denmark when Harald became king.
Originally a pagan, Harald may have converted to Christianity after the German king Otto the Great defeated him in battle. According to one source, Harald, along with his wife and son, were baptized when he swore fealty to Otto. If this is how it happened, we shouldn’t necessarily read too much into Harald’s piety.
Conversion was a symbol of political submission and an obligation to pay a tithe, as one historian noted. And, as that historian notes, at least in this instance, it’s hard to tell conversion apart from conquest.2. Harald tried to get the Danish and Norwegians he ruled to become Christian – perhaps since Christianity could serve as a centralizing or unifying force.
Towards the end of Harald’s life, his hold on power began to disintegrate. For reasons that remain unclear, Harald lost control of the tribes he united in Denmark and even his own son turned against him. (Harald had to seek refuge in Wendland from him.) Some historians feel that Harald’s problems stem from his promotion of Christianity when many nobles still remained pagan.
The Bluetooth Logo
As a result of their close affinity with carving – the Norse were veritable magicians with wood — some historians believe that runes took on a spiky appearance to make it easier to carve them into wood and stone. (It is easier to move your knife to work a straight line over a curve.)
Wood was plentiful in the heavily forested Scandinavia and the region’s inhabitants developed superb carving skills. The genius underlying Viking longships and art work attest to this talent.
The longship’s long, narrow, and light design provided strength and agility. The ship’s shallow draft let it silently sail in water only three feet deep (1 m) and stealthily land on beaches. Yet the longship’s strength let it weather the rough North Atlantic where the ship’s agility let it pivot sharply to avoid icebergs. A crew of Vikings could carry these light ocean-faring ships across land to make a quick getaway.
Viking craftmanship and attention to detail also appears in their ornate yet detailed gold jewelry.
It’s somehow comforting that a nearly forgotten Norse king – and an extinct alphabet – are now immortalized in technology. It is often overlooked, but the Norse were, in their own way, the Silicon Valley masterminds of their day.
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- Bluetooth also may have come from a corruption of the English word for chief (“thane”) and dark; Harald was a “dark chieftain.” Or, as one museum curator argues, Harald wore primarily blue clothing – akin to pricey purple clothing — to emphasize his royalty. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_Bluetooth [↩]
- See Timothy Reuter in Neil Lunds article “Harald Bluetooth – A Saint Very Nearly Made by Adam of Bremen” in The Scandinavians from the Vendel Period to the Tenth Century edited by Judith Jesch. [↩]