7.1. Machine Languages

Suppose for a moment that you were asked to perform a task and were given the following list of instructions to perform:

  1. 0001 0011 0011 1011
  2. 1101 0111 0001 1001
  3. 1111 0001 1101 1111
  4. 0000 1100 0101 1101
  5. 0001 0011 0011 1011

These instructions have no real meaning to you, but they are exactly the kind of instructions that a computer expects. It only knows how to deal with 0s and 1s, so all of its instructions must be written in binary format. A processor’s control unit has a format it expects each such instruction to be in: typically a instruction will be a set length, say 16 or 32 or 64 bits and the first few bits will specify what kind of instruction it is. These first few bits, known as the opcode (operation code), say what general task is to be done - something like “store a number” or “add two numbers”. The rest of the instruction will contain operands, the extra information needed to understand the instruction - things like where to store the number or which two numbers to add.

The figure below shows how an imaginary computer might interpret an instruction. The first 4 bits are the opcode - in this case we are assuming 0001 means “add two values”. The next 6 bits specify the memory address of the first number we are adding and the last 6 bits specify the memory address of the second number.

A machine instruction
How a computer might interpret the instruction 0001110001001011.

Computers usually support only a small number of machine code instructions; a few dozen to a few hundred very simple instructions like “add two numbers” or “store a value to memory”. The list of available instruction and the format for specifying them make up a machine language. Machine languages were the first programming languages - the earliest electronically programmable computers had to be programmed by feeding in a program as a list of 0s and 1s that specified what the computer was to do. (Before that the program had to be set physically with switches or patch cords.)

Important

Because these are the only instructions a computer actually can understand and perform, at some point every program a computer runs must be converted to machine instructions.

You can probably see the difficulties of working in machine language. While it might be very appropriate for a computer, it is extremely confusing for a computer programmer. They are also are restricted to very low level commands. There is no way to say something like “open a connection to google.com” or “draw this image on the screen” in a machine language - instead you would have to break those tasks down into much lower level commands that would accomplish your goal.

Materials on this page adapted from:
Online Interactive Modules for Teaching Computer Science by Osman Balci et al.