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Adding Binary Numbers

A key requirement of digital computers is the ability to use logical functions to perform arithmetic operations. The basis of this is addition; if we can add two binary numbers, we can just as easily subtract them, or get a little fancier and perform multiplication and division. How, then, do we add two binary numbers?

Let's start by adding two binary bits. Since each bit has only two possible values, 0 or 1, there are only four possible combinations of inputs. These four possibilities, and the resulting sums, are:

     0 + 0 =  0
     0 + 1 =  1
     1 + 0 =  1
     1 + 1 = 10

Whoops! That fourth line indicates that we have to account for two output bits when we add two input bits: the sum and a possible carry. Let's set this up as a truth table with two inputs and two outputs, and see where we can go from there.


Well, this looks familiar, doesn't it? The Carry output is a simple AND function, and the Sum is an Exclusive-OR. Thus, we can use two gates to add these two bits together. The resulting circuit is shown below.

0 0 0 0
0 1 0 1
1 0 0 1
1 1 1 0


Half Adder Circuit

OK, we've got a good start on this circuit. However, we're not done yet. In a computer, we'll have to add multi-bit numbers together. If each pair of bits can produce an output carry, it must also be able to recognize and include a carry from the next lower order of magnitude. This is the same requirement as adding decimal numbers -- if you have a carry from one column to the next, the next column has to include that carry. We have to do the same thing with binary numbers, for the same reason. As a result, the circuit to the left is known as a "half adder," because it only does half of the job. We need a circuit that will do the entire job.

To construct a full adder circuit, we'll need three inputs and two outputs. Since we'll have both an input carry and an output carry, we'll designate them as CIN and COUT. At the same time, we'll use S to designate the final Sum output. The resulting truth table is shown to the right.

Hmmm. This is looking a bit messy. It looks as if COUT may be either an AND or an OR function, depending on the value of A, and S is either an XOR or an XNOR, again depending on the value of A. Looking a little more closely, however, we can note that the S output is actually an XOR between the A input and the half-adder SUM output with B and CIN inputs. Also, the output carry will be true if any two or all three inputs are logic 1.

What this suggests is also intuitively logical: we can use two half-adder circuits. The first will add A and B to produce a partial Sum, while the second will add CIN to that Sum to produce the final S output. If either half-adder produces a carry, there will be an output carry. Thus, COUT will be an OR function of the half-adder Carry outputs. The resulting full adder circuit is shown below.

0 0 0 0 0
0 0 1 0 1
0 1 0 0 1
0 1 1 1 0
1 0 0 0 1
1 0 1 1 0
1 1 0 1 0
1 1 1 1 1


Full Adder Circuit


One-bit Full Adder Symbol

The circuit above is really too complicated to be used in larger logic diagrams, so a separate symbol, shown to the right, is used to represent a one-bit full adder. In fact, it is common practice in logic diagrams to represent any complex function as a "black box" with input and output signals designated. It is, after all, the logical function that is important, not the exact method of performing that function.

Four-bit binary adder

Now we can add two binary bits together, accounting for a possible carry from the next lower order of magnitude, and sending a carry to the next higher order of magnitude. To perform multibit addition the way a computer would, a full adder must be allocated for each bit to be added simultaneously. Thus, to add two 4-bit numbers to produce a 4-bit sum (with a possible carry), you would need four full adders with carry lines cascaded, as shown to the right. For two 8-bit numbers, you would need eight full adders, which can be formed by cascading two of these 4-bit blocks. By extension, two binary numbers of any size may be added in this manner.

It is also quite possible to use this circuit for binary subtraction. If a negative number is applied to the B inputs, the resulting sum will actually be the difference between the two numbers. We'll look at this subject in more detail in the page on Negative Numbers and Binary Subtraction.

In a modern computer, the adder circuitry will include the means of negating one of the input numbers directly, so the circuit can perform either addition or subtraction on demand. Other functions are commonly included in modern implementations of the adder circuit, especially in modern microprocessors.

Prev: Boolean Algebra Next: Negative Numbers and Binary Subtraction

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