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Representing Integers in Binary

Getting close to the metal in this article.
Posted Posted 3 September 2019 at 12:10 PM
By Joseph Mellor

In this article, we're going to discuss how we can represent integers in binary.

Topics Covered

Limited Number of Digits

I'm going to describe a scenario that's weird to humans but that your computer actually has to do all the time.

Let's say that you have a 200 page book with exactly 50 000 words, and I ask you to tell me what the 37 420th word is. To make it easier for you, the author of the book wrote the number of words on each page at the bottom of the page, since the number of words can vary from page to page. To determine the actual word, you would have to keep a running total of the number of words you've seen so far, stop as soon as your total goes above 37 420, and then count words from the beginning of the page until you reach the word.

Now, let me make a small change. Let's say you have a 200 page book with exactly 50 000 words and exactly 250 words on every page, and I ask you to tell me what the 37 420th word is. Well, the first page is going to have 250 words on it, the first two pages will have 500 words, the first three pages will have 750 words, etc., so the 37 420th word will be the (37 420 % 250) + 1171th word on page (37 420 / 250) + 1150. Now, instead of having to go through more than a hundred pages and keep a total of the number of words so far, you can now just flip to page 150 and find the 171th word.

As you can see, when the pages have a fixed number of words on them, finding an arbitrary word given an index is quick and easy. Types in a lot of high performance languages will have a fixed number of bytes for the same exact reason. If we don't, the computer either won't know when the number ends or will have to waste time trying to figure out when the number ends.

By making the types have a fixed number of bytes, we limit the number of possible values we can represent. For example, if we have a type one byte long, then that type can only represent 28=256 different values.

Signed vs Unsigned

We have to make a distinction between signed and unsigned integers before we go any further. Signed integers can represent zero, positive numbers, and negative numbers and unsigned integers can only represent zero and positive numbers.

If you want to count the number of people who visited your webpage, you only want positive numbers since you can't get a negative number of views. If you have a rating system that allows people to upvote and downvote posts, then you want both positive and negative numbers for the net upvotes. If you just want negative numbers, add a '-' in front of an unsigned number when you write your results.

Since we want people to use the right type for the job, we'll allow people to use signed and unsigned versions of the int. We'll let int represent signed integers and unsigned int represent unsigned integers.

Binary Representation

As you already know, computers don't understand anything except on and off, which we generally abbrieviate with 1 and 0. For us to represent something any numeric types, we have to work with this constraint. We should also be able to handle arithmetic as efficently as possible, so we should pick a good representation. To see why picking a good representation for you number system is important, see how long you can multiply MMMCDLXXXIII and MMCMXVIII without giving up.

To start out, we're just going to say that we can use eight bits (a.k.a. a byte) to represent a number, which means

  1. We can only represent 28=256 different numbers since we only have eight bits, just as we could only represent 104=10 000 different numbers if we have four digits.
  2. Because we want to represent as many different numbers as possible, each number should only have one binary representation.
  3. Because we want to be consistent, there should be exactly one base ten number for each binary representation
  4. If a • bc in base ten (where is an arbitrary arithmetic operation), the binary representations of a, b, and c should also satisfy a • bc.
  5. In our representation a • b should be quick to calculate, where is any arithmetic operation.
  6. Determining if a > b should be quick.

Unsigned Types

Since we have 256 possible numbers and we want to represent all the positive numbers we can and zero, we can just let the binary representation of a number be the number in base two and the resulting binary representations will satisfy everything an unsigned type should satisfy, meaning we'll represent the numbers from 0 to 255. Converting from base ten to binary is trivial, so I'm not going to rehash it here. If you need a more in-depth explanation, check this article.

Since the algorithms for arithmetic in binary are just like the algorithms in base ten, we can just use the normal algorithms for arithmetic.


Since we can represent all the numbers from 0 to 255, we should be able to represent the result of any arithmetic operation so long as the result is between 0 and 255. For example:

Binary Base 10
0010 0101 37
+ 0001 0011 +    19
0011 1000 56

We will have a problem, however, if the result is greater than 255 or less than 0. For example, let's calculate 255 + 1.

1 1111 111 
1111 1111
+    0000 0001
1 0000 0000

Since we only have eight bits we just drop the ninth bit, meaning 255 + 10. Since a + bc means c - ba by the basic rules of algebra, 255 + 10 means 0 - 1255. In general, if you go above the highest number we can represent, you'll loop back around to the lowest number we can represent, and, if you go below the lowest number we can represent, you'll loop back around to the highest number we can represent.

Signed Types

With signed Types, we also need to satisfy a few other constraints, such as:

What Numbers Will We Represent?

Before we can come up with a representation for something, we need to establish what we're representing. In our case, we need to figure out what numbers we want to represent.

We want 0 since 0 is pretty useful, so let's include it. Since 0 is its own inverse and we only want one binary representation for each number, we don't need to include a "negative zero". We'll also want 1, so we'll include 1. Since we want to be able to represent the negative of every number we add to the list, we'll also have to include -1. Let's also add 2 and -2 into the list, 3 and -3 to the list, and so on until we run out of numbers.

After adding 127 and -127, we have a problem: we only have one more binary representation available. If we added 128 and -128, we would have to represent 257 different numbers, which we can't do since we've run out of space. Since 0 is its own inverse, we don't want to include it twice, and we can only have 2n binary representations, we will never be able to completely represent a consecutive series of numbers centered around 0. Since it's only one number, though, we won't have to worry.

Right now, since we don't really know what to do with the last number, we're just going to say that we definitely want to represent every integer from -127 to 127. We'll determine the last number we want to represent when we figure out how we're going to represent our numbers.

Choosing an Efficient Representation

As I showed earlier when I asked you to multiply two numbers in Roman numerals, choosing a good representation for numbers will help you do math quickly and effectively. Ideally, we would like to use the same exact algorithms for arithmetic operations for signed and unsigned integers so that we don't have to have separate hardware for signed and unsigned operations. Since using the number in base two works for all the nonnegative numbers, let's keep that system for all the nonnegative numbers, meaning 0000 0000 is 0, 0000 0001 is 1, 0000 0010 is 2, ..., and 0111 1111 is 127.

We have a problem, though. While representing something like 81 as 0101 0001 is all fine and good, how do we represent -81?

Taking the Negative

Remember, taking the negative of a number a produces another number -a such that -a + a0. To figure out what -a is, we'll use the equivalent statement 0 - a-a. First, we'll figure out the representation for -1. Since we want to use the same exact algorithms for arithmetic, we'll subtract 1 from 0 just like we normally would.

Doing the subtraction yields

10101010 10101010
- 0 0 0 0  0 0 0 1
1 1 1 1 1  1 1 1 1

where we drop the leftmost 1 from the result since we can't store it anywhere and doing anything else requires us to modify our addition algorithm.

If we add the binary representations for -1 and 1, we'll get 1 0000 0000, which overflows to 0, which is exactly the behavior we're looking for. We now have two ways of figuring out the rest of the negative numbers: subtract a positive number from 0 or multiplying by -1. Once we do the calculations, we'll find that -2 is 1111 1110, -3 is 1111 1101, ..., and -127 is 1000 0001.

We could also express -a as -1 - a + 1, which may be easier to understand. For example to calculate -81:

Binary Base 10
1111 1111 -1
- 0101 0001 -    81
1010 1110 -82
+ 0000 0001 +     1
1010 1111 -81

The new -1 - a + 1 process we came up with is equivalent to flipping the bits (replacing zeros with ones and ones with zeros) and adding one, which is how people normally describe taking the negative of a number in this system.

We've set up a system called two's complement, and it's the standard on the overwhelming majority on most computers since IBM released the System/360 in 1964. The only other options at the time were "one's compliment", in which you just flipped the bits to get the negative of a number, and the "sign-magnitude" format, in which you use the leftmost bit to represent the sign and you use the other bits to represent the absolute value.

One's compliment suffered from several problems, but the worst was 0 would have two representations: the standard 0000 0000 and 1111 1111. Since zero could be coded using either representation, you would have to check both representations whenever you wanted to make a comparison with zero.

The sign-magnitude format also has two representations for 0 (0000 0000 and 1000 0000), but checking if a number is zero is pretty easy since you can just ignore the leftmost bit entirely. Other than checking for zero, however, the sign-magnitude format requires you to turn addition into subtraction and vice versa and switch the order of the numbers you're adding or subtracting depending on the sign.

Benefits of Two's Compliment
The Missing Number

We've established that we're going to use two's complement to represent our integers and that we are definitely going to represent the integers from -127 to 127, but we're still missing one number. We can't have a representation we don't know how to interpret, or else our program could fail.

Finding the Missing Number

To figure out how to deal with the missing number, we're going to first find out which binary representation hasn't been used yet and then we're going to use the properties of the binary representation to figure out what it should be.

We could do this by going through all the numbers from 0 to 127, finding their negatives, but that would take too long. Plus, it's no fun. Since we can flip all the bits and add one to any binary representation, we know that we can negate the binary representation of the missing number. The missing number, however, can't have any of the numbers from -127 to 127 as its negative since each of them already have a negative and the negative of a negative is the original number.

Putting all this together means that when we negate the missing number, we have to end up with the number itself. Since the number is its own negative, adding it to itself must equal zero, and since adding the number to itself is equivalent to multiplying by 2 (10 in binary) and multiplying by 2 will be easier in this case, we're going to multiply by two. Let's represent the missing number by abcd efgh, where each letter represents an unknown digit.

abcd efgh
x           10
a bcde fgh0
a bcde fgh0

For abcd efgh to be its own inverse bcde fgh0 must equal 0000 0000, meaning the missing number must be a000 0000. Since a can only be a 0 or a 1 and 0000 0000 is zero, 1000 0000 must be the representation for the missing number.

What Number Does 1000 0000 Represent?

The missing number is kind of weird since it's its own negative and not zero. If we subtract one, we will end up with 127, so maybe it should be 127. If we add one to it, however, we will end up with 1000 0001, which is -127 (to see it for yourself, negate 1000 0001 and convert from binary to base 10). Our choices are either the number one more than 127 or the number one less than -127, which are 128 and -128.

Note that the most significant bit (leftmost digit) is a 1. If we were to make it positive, it would be the only positive number that starts with a 1. As a general principle, every special case you have to check will make your program more inefficient, and making 1000 0000 positive would be a special case, so let's just make it negative.

Since we've decided that our missing number will be negative, 1000 0000 will represent -128.

What if We Want to Represent Larger Numbers?

The system we set up works identically with more bits. If we want unsigned numbers, we use the number in base two as the number's binary representation, and we can represent numbers from 0 to 2n with n bits. If we want signed numbers, we can represent numbers from -2n-1 to 2n-1-1 with n bits, where positive numbers get their normal binary representations and negative numbers flip all the bits of their corresponding positive numbers and add one. 0 is still 0000 ... 0000, 1 is still 0000 ... 0001, -1 is still 1111 ... 1111, 2n-1-1 is still 0111 ... 1111, and -2n-1 is still 1000 ... 0000.


We explained how computers represent integer numbers using a system called two's complement which will allow us to represent integers of any size.

If you're coming from the Making Sense of C series, the next article in the series is Types in C, but you should read The Memory Hierarchy before reading about types in C since it will provide use cases for the different types.

A picture of Joseph Mellor, the author.

Joseph Mellor is a Senior at TU majoring in Physics, Computer Science, and Math. He is also the chief editor of the website and the author of the tumd markdown compiler. If you want to see more of his work, check out his personal website.
Credit to Allison Pennybaker for the picture.