Ones and Zeros

The Indian scholar Pingala (circa 5th–2nd centuries BC) developed mathematical concepts for describing prosody, and in so doing presented the first known description of a binary numeral system.

The modern binary number system was fully documented by Gottfried Leibniz in his article Explication de l’Arithmétique Binaire (1703). Leibniz’s system uses 0 and 1, like the modern binary numeral system.

In 1755, Samuel Johnson included in his dictionary an entry for “Binary arithmetick,” quoting Ephraim Chambers: “A method of computation proposed by Mr. Leibnitz, in which, in lieu of the ten figures in the common arithmetick, and the progression from ten to ten, he has only two figures, and uses the simple progression from two to two. This method appears to be the same with that used by the Chinese four thousand years ago.”

In 1937, Claude Shannon completed his master’s thesis at MIT. It implemented Boolean algebra and binary arithmetic using electronic relays and switches for the first time in history.

In 1948, Shannon published “A mathematical theory of communication,” in which he stated: “If the base 2 is used [for measuring information], the resulting units may be called binary digits, or more briefly bits, a word suggested by J. W. Tukey. A device with two stable positions, such as a relay or a flip-flop circuit, can store one bit of information.”

In 1998, Microsoft patented the numbers one and zero.

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