How Does Binary Code Work?

By J.T. Barett

Modern computers manage all information -- numbers, text, images and other data -- as a pattern of ones and zeroes called binary code, or base-2 numbers. Computers first translate information into binary, process and store it in that form, then translate it back to a human-readable format for display. Although it may seem strange at first glance, the scheme is reliable and works well with the electronic circuits that make computers work.


Integers are the easiest kind of information to represent in binary, as they can be translated directly as numbers. For example, the integer 217 is a number represented in the familiar base 10. The base-2 equivalent is 11011001. The number is the same; when you perform arithmetic on it you get equivalent results. The only difference is how the number is represented.

Text and Other Data

Text, images, video and other data are represented as strings of binary codes. In the case of text, for example, computer scientists established standard patterns of ones and zeros to represent each letter, numeral and punctuation mark, much as Morse Code did for telegraphs in the 1800s. For images and video, each tiny dot in a picture is represented by color and brightness numbers that the computer translates into binary; these files are long strings of millions or billions of ones and zeroes.