Bits to Bytes?
If you want the inside scoop on why eight bits equal one byte in computer lingo, read on. Bob Bemer can tell you. In his words…

"I just cannot resist trying to answer your question on why a byte has eight bits.

If computers worked entirely in binary (and some did a long time ago), and did nothing but calculations with binary numbers, there would be no bytes.

But to use and manipulate character information, we must have encodings for those symbols. Much of this was already known from punch card days.

The punch card of IBM had 12 rows and 80 columns. Each column was assigned to a symbol. A group of columns was a field.

They started to need not just numbers, but alphabet. This was accomplished by adding more punches to the digits to make letters. Remember, this was much prior to binary representations of those same characters…

In this period I came to work for IBM, and I saw all the confusion caused by the 64-character limitation on the cards…especially when we started to think about word processing, which would require both upper and lower case alphabet. Wow, way too many punches!

Some folks started thinking about 7-bit characters, but this was ridiculous. In those days my mantra was "powers of 2 are magic” and it seemed reasonable to me to make a universal 8-bit character set, handling up to 256.

So the group I headed developed and justified such a proposal. With IBM's STRETCH computer as background, I designed the character set for it, handling 64-character words divisible into groups of 8, under the guidance of Dr. Werner Buchholz, the man who coined the term "byte" for an 8-bit grouping.

Thus Buchholz's "byte" caught on everywhere. The design had 8 bits moving around in parallel. And you will notice that I am still correct. Powers of 2 are still magic!"


Bob Bemer
(February 8, 1920 – June 22, 2004)


Who was Bob Bemer? Edmund Arranga in COBOL Report says:
"Mr. Bemer's accomplishments resonate so deeply one almost assumes they have been with us always, snatched out of the ether by a collective consciousness, instead of having been the creation of one man. A short list includes:

  1. He helped create COBOL (as in "Grandfather of")
  2. He coined the words COBOL & CODASYL
  3. He invented the ESCape sequence
  4. He created the PICTURE clause
  5. He helped create the 8-bit per byte standard
Bits to Bytes