In the last chapter we implemented a machine, Add4, which added two nybbles together. We then realized that dealing directly with wires was a pretty terrible experience, so we invented the concept of a multiwire – a group of wires that acts as one. We made up some semantics for how these things interface with machines – either directly inputting all of their wires, or by making a copy of every machine they touch.

The last few chapters have been a long stretch of working with numbers, and you’re probably sick of them. Let’s take a break in this chapter, and without further ado, build some tools to help us work with multiwires.

A New Machine

The first machine we’ll build is called Split, and it divides a (single) wire into its value and the not of its value.

Split is super simple – a nice break from what we’ve been doing lately, no? But why is it useful? As usual, it’s not useful in-and-of-itself, but just a stepping stone in the implementation of something more useful. We call these “less-than-useful” machines lemma machines, because a lemma is something you make solely to be used to make something else.

Takeaway: A lemma is something you make in order to use it to make something else.


What, you might be wondering, will we use this lemma machine for? Well, it’s called Demux2, and it looks like this:

Spend a minute or two convincing yourself that you know what this machine does before reading on.

Demux2 takes a multiwire input A, annotated as n. What is this n? Well, it’s not anything specific. It’s a placeholder for any particular multiwire; this machine doesn’t care what multiwire is coming into it, so we use the placeholder n to say “give me anything you got”. We say that a multiwire with such a placeholder annotation is polymorphic.

Takeaway: A multiwire without a specific annotation is called polymorphic, which means it can take any annotation. Any machine which takes such a multiwire is also said to be polymorphic.

Note that there is nothing special about the annotation n – it could just as well be a, or x. We will treat any annotation that is one-letter long and all lowercase as a polymorphic annotation. When you make this machine, you can substitute n with any annotation you please, so long as you change all of the ns at the same time. That means the output wires, because they’re also labeled n, must always have the same annotation as the input wire. If we wanted the outputs to have a different annotation than the input, we’d need to use a different letter to annotate them – maybe j or something like that.

Back to Demux2. The other input to this machine is a (single) wire D (short for “destination”), which Splits and then is anded against the contents of multiwire. Whenever a wire is anded against value 1, its value passes through untouched; likewise, anding against value 0 will always output a 0. As a result, pushing our multiwire through these Splited and gates, acts like a “filter” – a copy of the multiwire input will be made either on the top multiwire, or on the bottom one. The other multiwire will have 0s on all of its wires.

Takeaway: Any wire anded against a 1 moves its value through the gate.

So Demux2 allows us to take a signal and move it to one of two wires, depending on an input signal. You can think of this like a traffic fork – either your car goes one way, or it goes the other. It can’t go down both lanes simultaneously (unless you are particularly unlucky that day). This metaphor is enticing, because it suggests another machine, namely a traffic merge. Let’s build that next.


Mux2, as you might expect, is the opposite of Demux2. It takes two polymorphic (but annotated the same) multiwires A and B, choses one of them via the value of S (short for “source”), and moves it to the output. Whenever a wire is ored against a 0, its value moves through the or gate, so because we’ve filtered one of our multiwires all the way to 0, the other successfully passes through the or gate.

Takeaway: Any wire ored against a 0 moves its value through the gate.

While a Demux2 allows us to move a multiwire to one of two locations, based on a Destination, Mux2 lets us choose a Source multiwire and move it to a single output. Demux2 can selectively send information somewhere, while Mux2 can selectively read information.

Study these two gates well, because we’ll get lots of mileage out of them as we move forward into the actual implementation of a computer. It might not feel like it, but we’ve already built most of the pieces we’ll need in order to actually get some real work done. Exciting, no?

In the next chapter, we’ll investigate how to make machines that change over time, which will be the basis for us to store information. From there it’s just a short hop to actual computers!


  1. Design Mux4 and Demux4, which take a multiwire annotated as 2 (ie. two wires) and uses it to switch from/to four different multiwires.