Answer: A Nybble

In today’s storage-hungry environment, we tend to focus on the larger units of storage: how many gigabytes of storage a new smartphone has, how many terabytes of video a media server can store, or how many petabytes of storage a cloud host commands. On the opposite end of the measurement spectrum, one we hardly talk about, we find the tiniest units of data, the land of bits, nibbles, and bytes.

Although the idea of breaking down data into discrete units of measurement is an old one and, computationally speaking, was in use with simple punch cards as early as the 18th century, terms like bit and byte didn’t come into popular use until the middle of the 20th century.

In the 1920s, Ralph Hartley first proposed the use of a logarithmic measure of data (and in doing so laid the ground work for the kilobyte, megabyte, gigabyte, etc. system of measurement we take for granted now). Decades later, in his famed 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Claude E. Shannon put the word “bit” on the map—although he gave credit to John W. Tukey who had, in the prior year, began contracting “binary digit” to “bit” within internal memos at Bell Labs.

In 1956, Dr. Werner Buchholz coined the term “byte” to refer to a grouping of bits. The word is a purposeful misspelling of “bite” in order to avoid any typographical or linguistic confusion with “bit”. Although we’ve come to think of “byte” as a measure of 8-bits, the size of a byte over the last 50 years has been largely hardware dependent; early computers functioned with bytes made of 4 and 6 bits. The rise of 8-bit processors in the 1970s and the mathematical convenience of using an 8-bit unit made the 8-bit byte standard.

So where does the nibble fit into all this talk of bits and bytes? Just like byte is a play on the word bite, nibble (or the variations nybble and nyble intended to imitate the spelling of byte) is also a play on words—a nibble is half a byte. Although we don’t know the very first person to use the word “nibble” or its variations, one of the earliest recorded uses is in the late 1970s.

Citibank used “nybbles” as simple units to facilitate transactions between their ATM machines and data processing centers. Although this is the first recorded use, in a later recollection, programmer and professor David B. Benson noted that he used the term “nibble” jokingly with other researchers way back in the late 1950s at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (which means he may well have coined the term).

So how can you work the nibble into your daily conversations? Easy! The next time someone asks you which model tablet they should buy, you can say with confidence: “Well, I definitely wouldn’t go lower than 137,438,953,472 nibbles worth of storage, obviously.” They’ll thank you for your insight.

Image courtesy of Martin Gibbs/



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