The Balanced Ternary Machines of Soviet Russia

Andrew Buntine on November 21, 2016

"Perhaps the prettiest number system of all is the balanced ternary notation" - Donald E. Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming, Vol. 2. It's... [Read Full]
markdown guide

This is a fantastic article. FYI the IOTA project has a prototype ternary microprocessor (called JINN) and they are working on plans for widescale adoption in Internet-of-Things devices. Specifically it will provide low-power high-velocity nanotransactions. They have their own "cryptocurrency" token with it as well. So we may see a resurgence in ternary coming soon. (or maybe not, who knows?)


Thanks for an interesting read. Given what you've pointed out about the relative efficiency of ternary over binary, it brought two thoughts to my mind:
1) That there might a lot to be gained from from a more cooperative open communication about advanced research in both science and engineering across what are artificial national/cultural bounds. That said with an understanding of why we weren't necessarily pushing computer "secrets" to each other in the late 50s, and also understanding that "momentum" has other advantages in capturing a market beside being "best of breed."
2) I wonder what kind of encoding patterns we search for in the SETI data. Did we use binary on Project Voyager? What if everybody else "out there" speaks ternary?


Great stuff! Heard about it for the first time and I'm really surprised that it wasn't adopted widely before....
The only technical advantage in binary I can imagine is, that without an "off" state as value-representation you don't need any special check for invalid "trits" due to physical damage.


Wow! Phenomenal article. I had been under the massively mistaken impression that ternary computation required quantum computers (if they exist) - clearly I fundamentally misunderstood both quantum and more importantly ternary computation.

Do you know of any particularly good (preferably mathematics-heavy) books on alternative or "non-standard" modes of computation such as those discussed here?

Thank you!


Quite an interesting read. Though i must say i probably have a bigger understanding of balanced ternary than most, given that i am chief developer of the SBTCVM project, a project that aims to create a balanced ternary virtual machine. The Setun computers are quite a fascinating bunch.

SBTCVM really started with one night browsing wikipedia, and coming across balanced ternary, and in turn an article on Setun. the basic idea was i wanted to work with balanced ternary on binary computers.

When I started the actual VM itself, i had gotten an integer mathematics library up and running, and figured id put it to use. And while SBTCVM has its own architecture design (that's mainly a result of the development process), The Setun machines were and are a key inspiration.


Pay attention to IOTA and Jinn processors. Ternary is coming.


Great article! I wasn't aware of this.
One minor typo, though, in your fourth example (encoding -114) there are few too many minuses I believe.


Is there something I missed cause I can't see the article....


It looks like a bug with - I will open an issue.

code of conduct - report abuse