How astronomy freed the computer from its chains

John O’Sullivan’s search for exploding black holes led to fast, reliable Wi-Fi. Credit: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
John O’Sullivan’s search for exploding black holes led to fast, reliable Wi-Fi. Credit: Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research

When you use a Wi-Fi network—at home, in the office or at the airport—you are using patented technology born of Australian astronomy.

Australia’s CSIRO created a technology that made the wireless LAN fast and robust. And their solution grew out of 50 years of radio astronomy and one man’s efforts to hear the faint radio whispers of exploding black holes.

Dr John O’Sullivan and his colleagues didn’t find the black holes. But they developed a way of cleaning up intergalactic radio wave distortion which became the key to fast, reliable Wi-Fi.

The CSIRO team realised that techniques they’d developed for astronomy and other applications could help solve the problem. Using fast Fourier transformation (a central tool of radio astronomy) and other techniques they created a robust wireless technology and submitted a patent application in 1992. A patent was granted in the US in 1996. Patents are now held in 19 countries.

The ideas in the patent were incorporated by the global standards body IEEE into three of the four standards used for wireless LANs: 802.11a, 802.11g, and the new 802.11n standard.

In October 2009 John, the lead inventor, received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science.

Further information: John O’Sullivan, john.osullivan@csiro.au, grants.innovation.gov.au/SciencePrize

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