Ask the CSIRO to list their top world-beating inventions and WiFi will literally come in at number one. (For the relative rankings of plastic banknotes, extended wear contact lenses and Aerogard, see the most boastful part of their website here.) So it only seems right that the early-1990s wireless data transmission system that started it all is now part of this collection at National Museum Australia.
The prototype WLAN (wireless local area network) meant the end of annoying dial-up tones and annoying dial-up speed, leading the way to our current information age, in which billions of bits of information speed invisibly around the place and we can scroll the internet on the toilet if we want to.
Five CSIRO boffins worked on the original project – John O’Sullivan, Graham Daniels, Terry Percival (pictured above) along with Diethelm Ostry and John Dean – and their biggest hurdle was making the thing work indoors. Before WLAN, as soon as radio waves encountered physical obstacles (walls, furniture) they got all mixed up and created a distorted signal. So the five men from the CSIRO transmitted several signals over various frequencies simultaneously, all of which would merge into a complete signal at the receiving point.
Interestingly, the project started off in the organisation’s radiophysics division, whose other accolades include helping to invent radar during WWII and creating Australia’s first computer – the room-sized CSIRAC. The radiophysics lab also spent time listening to black holes and trying to piece their waves together – a task for which it created the Fast Fourier Transform integrated circuit. The chip’s ability to encode and decode data streams put it at the heart of WLAN (and WiFi): from black holes to Australian boffins and then to the rest of the world.