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CSIRO WLAN collection

At a glance

  • Australian scientific innovation
  • International contribution to wireless networking
  • Key technology for mobile devices
  • Recent acquisition 

Five components of the WLAN hardware.Australian scientific innovation

The National Museum has recently acquired the CSIRO WLAN collection of hardware built by the CSIRO in the early 1990s for developing and testing a new approach to wireless data transmission between computers.

CSIRO's wireless local area network (WLAN) invention solved the problem of indoor (local area) radio transmission and reception. This technology is now the basis for 'wifi' and is used to connect billions of phones, tablets, computers, printers, routers, televisions, cameras and games consoles to wireless networks and to the Internet. The invention has suffered from widespread overseas patent infringement and, in April 2012, CSIRO negotiated a major settlement with leading computer producers.

Drawing showing the trajectory of the wifi signal.
Figure 1 in CSIRO's US patent application showing the trajectory of the wireless signal. Image courtesy CSIRO.

From astronomy to WLAN

The WLAN project started in CSIRO's Radio-physics division (now the CSIRO ICT Centre). This division has been a leading Australian innovator. During the Second World War it was involved in radar research and developed the distance-measuring equipment that has become part of the instrument landing systems now used at all major airports.

Immediately after the war, CSIRO began the development of Australia's first computer (the CSIR Mark I) which was used in rainfall research and aeronautical engineering. The CSIR Mark I (also known as the CSIRAC) was given to the University of Melbourne where it was used to compute building design calculations and the first computer-based weather forecasts in Australia.

The Radio-physics Divsion was the first research group within CSIRO to work in radio astronomy – a field in which Australia continues to have a pre-eminent role. The Fast Fourier Transform (FFT) integrated circuit (chip) used by the WLAN project was developed for radio astronomy research. The chip was integral to the ability of the device to encode and decode data streams within an acceptable timeframe. The mathematical functions the chip performs are at the heart of CSIRO's WLAN invention.

Figure 4 drawing of a wireless network.
Figure 4 in CSIRO's US patent application showing a wireless network. Image courtesy CSIRO.

A patented invention

On 23 November 1992 CSIRO filed for a patent with the US Patent and Trademark Office. Just over three years later, on 23 January 1996, patent no. 5,487,069 was registered listing five CSIRO scientists as the inventors: John O'Sullivan, Graham Daniels, Terence Percival, Diethelm Ostry and John Deane. The patent application describes the invention as follows:

The object of the present invention is to provide a wireless LAN in a confined multipath transmission environment having a high bit rate even through the reciprocal of the data or information bit rate (the data 'period') is short relative to the time delay differences between significant transmission paths.

CSIRO's invention solved a problem that had prevented high-speed indoor wireless networking – radio waves bounce off walls, furniture and other indoor objects, creating reverberation and an echo that distort the signal.

Since 2005 CSIRO has filed lawsuits against overseas technology companies for patent infringement and has negotiated licensing agreements with a number of major firms. On 2 April 2012 CSIRO reached a landmark settlement with companies such as Lenovo, Acer, Sony and AT&T.

In June 2012 the CSIRO team won the 'non-European' category of the 2012 European Inventors Award. The award is conferred by the European Patent Office to 'outstanding inventors for their contribution to technological, social and economic progress'. This is the first time that an Australian team has won this prestigious international award.

CSIRO WLAN collection

The collection includes the four main hardware components used in the original WLAN prototype:

  • analogue-to-digital converter
  • digital-to-analogue converter
  • transmitter
  • receiver

In addition, the collection includes an example of the FFT integrated circuit, two laptop computers and a spectrum analyser that are representative of the type of machines used during the WLAN development period. One of the computers has the software that assembled and encoded data for transmission; the other, the software that decoded data sent by the transmitter.

The CSIRO WLAN collection forms part of the Museum's electronic and computing collections including the Hans Wetzel cinematography collection, the Australian Survey and Geoscience Australia collections of computer hardware and electronics, and computer developed by the CSIRO at the University of Sydney for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Authority (SNOCOM computer).