epa05529371 Journalists try the new Apple AirPods during the product viewing after the Apple launch event at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco, California, USA, 07 September 2016. Media reports indicate an expected launch of several new products including a new iPhone, new Apple Watch, and new operating systems. EPA/MONICA DAVEY
There are thousands of devices that can be made wireless © EPA

If you have an idea for a product and a subordinate then brings the concept to life, who can be said to have invented it?

I have been investigating this with regard to one of the most modest, yet successful, inventions of the past 25 years — Bluetooth, the short distance radio system that came into use in 1998.

Most electronics companies I visit display their membership certificate for what is called the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, a standards organisation based in the US.

I often ask how much a licence costs and who makes the money. The answers are invariably “not much” to the cost — you can use Bluetooth without joining — and “no idea” to the money trail.

Bluetooth is a pretty cheap technology. You can buy Bluetooth-enabled headphones for under £1, postage from China included. It is also extraordinarily pervasive. The SIG’s 2019 market report says 4bn Bluetooth devices will ship this year, rising to 5.4bn by 2023, as the internet of things proliferates.

By then, 39.5bn Bluetooth devices could be in use, probably not including the likes of hyper-cheap headphones. While the SIG has more than 35,000 members globally, there are some 50,000 electronics manufacturers in Shenzhen, China alone, few of which register. As members, companies get access to the latest Bluetooth versions, with better data transmission and contribute to their development, but it is not mandatory.

Since it is installed in five “official” products per human being, plus countless unofficial ones, Bluetooth has to be one of the world’s best-known words, let alone technologies. Some individual or company must surely have made a fortune from royalties.

Not so. There is effectively no money trail. The Bluetooth SIG is a non-profit, and a company with revenue under $100m pays membership of just $7,500 a year, plus $4,000 per Bluetooth product introduced.

Bluetooth was conceived in 1994 at Ericsson in Sweden, but the company saw little value in it and let it go open-source. Two former employees have a rightful claim to be the inventors. One is a Swedish Navy reserve doctor who had the basic idea and the first patents, the other an engineer who made it work. They live modestly in Gothenburg, Sweden and Groningen in the Netherlands, respectively, with no sign or expectation of Bluetooth riches.

A third player, arguably the intellectual mother of Bluetooth, was the Hollywood star and part-time physicist Hedy Lamarr, who died in 2000 at the age of 85. It is unknown if she was aware of Bluetooth, or WiFi, or GPS, for which she also laid the groundwork.

The odd thing about the two fathers of Bluetooth — Johan Ullman, who patented the idea, and Jaap Haartsen, the project manager who executed it — is that, while there is no dispute between them, neither knew the other, even though they worked in the same lab in Lund, Sweden at the same time.

Captain Ullman is a serial inventor of body protection products. His company Ullman Dynamics makes specialised suspension seats for high-speed naval and police boats in 74 countries.

Johan Ullman, came up with the idea of Bluetooth. Now he designs specialised suspension seats for high-speed boats © Jonathan Margolis

In 1994, Capt Ullman took his idea for remote earpiece-microphone headsets to Ericsson, fearing the damage mobile phones might do to people’s heads. Ericsson’s then mobile phone division liked his idea and tasked a team, led by radio expert Mr Haartsen, to develop it.

I asked Mr Haartsen if he expected Bluetooth to be as big as it turned out. “Of course not,” he said. “I’m an engineer. We never like to think about sales. It wasn’t until 2004 when the first billion devices were in the market that I realised this was pretty big.”

How do the two men feel about getting no royalties? “It used to hurt, but not now,” Capt Ullman said. “I have so many other exciting things to do.”

And Mr Haartsen? “Sometimes I tell people I invented Bluetooth and they just complain about it,” he said. “I bought a Mercedes recently and the Bluetooth wasn’t actually working. I explained the irony, but they seemed to think I was joking.”

jonathan.margolis@ft.com

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