The binary numeral system (base-2 numeral system) is the foundation of computer science. In the earliest known Sanskrit treatise on prosody, the Indian mathematician Pingala first used the binary system to analyse musical and poetic meters in the Chandahsutra (Science of Meters), also called Pingala-sutras, which dates back to the 2nd century AD.
“According to researchers, the Chandahsutra represents the first known description of a binary numeral system in connection with the systematic enumeration of meters with fixed patterns of short and long syllables”. The Chandahsutra is more than 1500 years older than Gottfried Leibnitz’s binary system. Leibnitz, however, received the inspiration for his binary system from ancient texts.
The binary representations in Pingala’s system increase towards the right, and not to the left like in the binary numbers of the modern, Western positional notation. Leibniz fully documented the modern binary system in the 17th century in his article, “Explication de l’Arithmétique Binaire”. Leibniz’s system used 0 and 1, like the modern binary numeral system. Etymologically, the word “binary” has its origins in the Latin “bis” which means “double“, same as a lot of other words starting with the “bi” prefix, such as “bicycle” or “binoculars”.
Computers use binary because they can only read and store an on or an off charge. The circuits in a computers’ processor are made up of billions of transistors. A transistor is a tiny switch that is activated by the electronic signals it receives. The digits 1 and 0 used in binary reflect the on and off states of a transistor.
Of all the positional systems, the binary system seems to be the simplest. 2 is the radix or the base of the system, meaning that only two digits – represented by 0 and 1 – appear in the system. Numbers can be encoded in binary format and stored using switches.
Computers, calculators, cell phones, burglar alarms, etc., all use the binary system. Everything on a computer is represented as streams of binary numbers. Audio, images and characters all look like binary numbers in machine code. These numbers are encoded in different data formats to give them meaning. Today, the binary system is used in every computer in the world.
The binary number system is one of the most important developments in the history of technology. It is the basis for the storage, transfer, and manipulation of data in computer systems and digital electronic devices.