I recently read CODE – The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software by Charles Petzold. It was a great read and a book that I can recommend to anyone who whishes to understand how computers really works at the most basic level. The book goes into great detail on how binary systems work, and how computers use binary numbers to encode things like positive and negative numbers, alphabet characters, fractions, etc. But the main part of the book is about how to solve logical problems using simple relays (i.e. transistors) connected in different ways.

During the different chapters Petzold  is building a more and more complex logical machine that ultimately resembles how a real modern computer work. He starts out with building simple logical gates (AND, NAND, OR, etc) out of relays, he then combines these into more complex units, for example a 1-bit adder and a 1-bit latch.

Most of the stuff in the book was not really news to me but it was interesting non the less. I had forgotten how computers actually perform subtraction by using addition for example. It is pretty neat trick. The trick is to convert the number you are subtracting into two’s complement. Here is an example showing how you can calculate 7 – 5 with only using NOT and ADD operators.

image An easier way to understand how this works is to try it with the number range 0-59.

-  5
+  1
+  7

Here we actually have to use subtraction to calculate the complement, the nice thing about twos' complement is that it can be calculated using the binary NOT operator.

Ok, back to the book. The last chapters cover how computers are programmed, he describes in great detail how for example the stack work, how you call and pass parameters to subroutines and how interrupts are used to respond to hardware events like a button being pressed on a keyboard. Again nothing new to someone who has worked with assembly language or taken some basic classes in computer science, but it was nice to to refresh the knowledge and fill in some gaps.

I first bought this book to give to my father who has trouble understanding and working with computers. He is constantly frustrated by the simplest things so I thought that it would help to have some understanding of how computers work. However I am not going to give this book to my farther, after the first couple of chapters the book quickly becomes very technical and tedious for someone who isn't that interested. But for any programmer who doesn't already know the fundamentals of computer hardware and software or just want to refresh their knowledge it is a great read.