What is a Computer Bit and How Does it Work?

Man working on multi computers
Photo by CDC-Pexels

What Makes Computers Tick?

When you think of computing, you may have images of whizzing processors or geeks typing on screens. But did you ever wonder how all these devices actually work? If so, keep reading. As technology continues to advance and computer literacy becomes more important than ever, we are going to break down what makes computers tick!

Electricity is the Common Demonator

Set of realistic vector hands pressing light switches
You turn on a switch and you are allowing current to flow. That is represented by a ‘1’ in  computer language called Binary Code. You press Off and you cut out the electric current from flowing and the is represented by a ‘0’. Photo iStock.

You flick a switch and a light bulb turns on. You flick the switch again and the blub turns off. If I were to tell you that computers run on this simple principle, would you believe me?   Well, believe you should because that’s all there is. Simply refer to a bulb that is lit as the number ‘1’ and when it is off, refer to it as a ‘0’. In other words, the values ‘0’ and ‘1’ are based on whether electricity, more popularly referred to as current, is flowing is represented by ‘1’ or current is not flowing, represented by ‘0’.

So I Should Call Them Ones and Zeros?

Not exactly. These two values are known as bits. So whatever you are doing on the computer; such as reading this article, you are actually reading a long list of bits that the computer sees and then translates into words. 

Of course, it is a bit (pun intended) more detailed than that. Not complex though, just a bit more to absorb, starting with the fact that when I mentioned “reading a long list of bits”, we have to translate these “long lists” into an organized pattern that the computer can read and understand how to translate them into something we humans will understand.

I’ll Byte!

Seamless pattern with abstract binary code, digital matrix background
4 rows of 8 bits = 4 rows of bytes. Photo: iStock

If you align eight bits in a row where some are set to ‘1’ and others are set to ‘0’, you have created what is referred to as a byte. It’s an arrangement that has a particular meaning to the computer.

A byte can be any letter or number from A-Z, 0-9 respectively. It can also store special characters, For example, binary code 00001101 is equal to 13 in decimal form. The alphabetic character “M” is similar in bit arrangement, but with one bit (pun intended again) of a difference, and that is it has an extra ‘on’ bit – 01001100. 

If you were to type the letter ‘R” on your screen, it would involve a different combination of eight bits. In this case, for the letter ‘R, the sequence would be 01000010, and the letter ‘S’ would be 01000011, and so on. 

Let’s backtrack and look at how these bits equate to their electrical equivalent. For our ‘M’ example above, which has the bit arrangement of 01001100, that would equal the following combination of electrical current that is, in this exact sequence: off, on, off, off, on, on, off, off.

This is based on a table called ASCII (As Key), which displays the eight bits (bytes), in ascending sequence, where each byte equates to a letter or number.  

What the particular instruction would be is dependent upon the arrangement of the 1s and 0s. If you are thinking this seems like some type of code, it is and is called binary code.

Understanding how computers use bits and bytes can help you understand how they process everything from the simplest math problems to streaming video or playing games online. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating topic!

Why are Bits Important?

The bits that make up your data are vital to how your computer operates. Bits determine whether a file is an image, spreadsheet, movie, or audio file; they tell your computer what to do with the information in that file. Converting information into digital form is called encoding; the process of converting it back into its original state is called decoding. Encoding and decoding both involve assigning values to different pieces of information so that a computer can store and process it appropriately.

For example, let’s say you have a picture that you want to save on your computer. The picture will be broken down into individual pixels and assigned an identifying number. This number will represent the color of each pixel (e.g., red, blue, or green). Thus, encoding this picture involves assigning numbers to each piece of information in it—in this case, the colors of each pixel in the photo.

Decoding would work the same way it would give a pixel its original identifying number so that it could once again be identified as a specific color; thus allowing you to see the photo as intended by its creator!

Bits in Programming

When you’re programming a computer, you use bytes to represent information. For example, when the programmer asks the computer to calculate 5+5, it translates this into binary. “0001 0010 0101” So in binary, 5+5 is “0110 0100 0101” (This is called a binary addition). These two numbers are added together and the answer of 10 is sent back. And that’s how bits work!

Summing Up

A computer bit is the smallest unit of information that a computer can read. When you align eight bits in a row, it is called a byte and each byte represents a letter, number, or special character, which is defined by the arrangement of the bits in the byte.

The translation of each byte can be found in the ASCII table. Bits are used to process everything from the simplest math problems to streaming video or playing games online.

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