What is a Byte? - Definition & Measurements

Instructor: Lonny Meinecke

Lonny teaches psychology classes at King University, and has a bachelor's degree in IT and a doctorate in psychology.

In this lesson, we will find out what a computer byte is. We will also take a quick look at where this word comes from, and how it is used in the computer industry.

What's a Byte?

A byte is a term we use to describe the basic unit of information used by computers. You're probably thinking… 'But wait! I thought computers used bits!' And you'd be right! Computers do use bits. However, bear in mind that the lowly computer bit can only describe one of two things (like a light switch): on or off, 1 or 0, true or false, and so forth. There's not a whole lot you can do with that!

So, we use a byte, not a bit, as the basic chunk of information in computers. A byte is a group of 8 bits, which allows you to do a whole lot more than you ever could with just a 1 or 0. Think of it like a row of 8 light switches in your kitchen, which you can use to control stuff. Can you imagine the number of combinations for 8 switches, each of which can be either up or down? You can? Did you guess 256? Terrific! That's gonna be some kitchen lighting system you have.

Bank of 8 light switches = 1 byte
light switch byte example

A Brief History of the Byte

What's with the 'y' in byte anyway? It turns out there's a very good reason for it. So there was this brilliant guy way back in 1956, Werner Buchholz, who decided that we could just barely fit all the numbers we needed (plus other things like letters and punctuation) into 7 computer bits to tell business machines what to do. (Today we call that ASCII). He wanted to call it a bite (a metaphor for what a computer was chewing on). To avoid confusion, he used a 'y' instead of an 'i', and the computer byte was born! Some say byte stands for binary term, sort of like pixel stands for picture element, but that probably came after the fact. Usually, the most mundane explanation is the real deal.

Werner Buchholz coined the word byte
coining the word byte

How do we know this? Well, this other amazing guy named Bob Bemer knew him and worked with him, and wrote the trivia down for us (his motto was 'Powers of Two are Magic'). Bob wanted to call the byte an octet. But you know how that goes… catchy words catch on first, and octet sounds more like a Dixieland band size. Hey, if you really want to look way back, folks had been using 6 bits to program looms using punched paper in the textile industry for hundreds of years. But 6 wasn't enough, and even though we only needed 7 bits, we got 8, which happens to be a power of 2. Gee, I'm sounding like an old Audi 5-cylinder engine commercial ('because 6 is too many and 4 is too few…').

How Bytes are Used to Describe and Measure Stuff

So, you're probably saying to yourself, what do we do with bytes that makes them so special? Let's do a quick math lesson. Don't worry, it's easy! Most of us use the base 10 numbering system (each digit can be 0-9, also called the decimal system). Computers use the binary number system (each digit can be 0 or 1). We use base 10 because we count on our fingers (and toes). Since computers don't have any, it's a whole lot easier to count to 1 instead. But binary works exactly like our decimal system. Each possible 'digit' can only be whatever exists in your number system, although you can group them, usually using columns. So, for us the magical number 42 is written:

The number 42 in the decimal system
42 in base 10

In decimal, each column to the left is a power of 10 greater than the one to its right. The far right column is our 1s, and the next to the left is our 10s. So, moving right to left, we get (2*1) + (4*10) = 2 + 40 = 42. But since computers don't have 4s or 2s, they have to use more columns, like so:

The number 42 in the binary system
42 in base 2

That's it! Now you can see how this works; a byte holds 8 bits, and each column to the left is a power of 2 greater than the one to its right. So, moving right to left, we get:

(0*1) + (1*2) + (0*4) + (1*8) + (0*16) + (1*32) = 2 + 8 + 32 = 42

We skipped the leftmost 2 bits, because those are just 0. In total, 8 bits can represent 256 different combinations.

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