How do calculators do trigonometry?

W.L. Feldhusen explains the obscure sine-finding trick hiding inside your calculator!


Image: Rik Panganiban, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How your calculator DOESN’T do it

The easiest and least accurate way to calculate sine and cosine for an angle is to measure a physical object. Want to know $\sin(40^\circ)$? Then get out your protractor, draw a right-angled triangle with a $40^\circ$ angle, and divide the measured length of the opposite side by the hypotenuse.

Finding $\sin(40^\circ) \approx$ 6cm/10cm through measurement

During the all-too-brief reign of the analogue calculator, you could effectively do this electro-mechanically by measuring the induction in a coil of wire angled $40^\circ$ out of phase with another coil — but unless your calculator was salvaged from the navigation computer of a 50s Boeing bomber aircraft, this is not how your calculator does it. Nor does your calculator consult tables of values painstakingly hand-derived from the angle addition and half-angle trigonometric identities, as was the norm for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers until the mid-century.

If you’re like me, you assumed that modern calculators approximate sine and cosine with polynomial functions using techniques from calculus and analysis. (If you’re very like me, you told a high school student this in your first year of teaching, struggling to make the key ideas of Taylor series accessible without referencing calculus.) However, these algebraic approximations prove slow to converge. A sophisticated computer can take a shortcut by storing the old immense tables in memory and then Chebyshev-approximating to get the last few digits of accuracy. But what about your pocket or scientific calculator, or, for that matter, your TI graphing calculator — where adding that architecture would be an expensive hassle?

A weirdly capitalised acronym

Enter CORDIC, the COordinate Rotation DIgital Computer — an algorithm designed by Convair’s Jack Volder to exploit the strengths of the then-emerging digital computers to their fullest.

The idea that Volder laid out in “Binary Computation Algorithms for Coordinate Rotation and Function Generation” is simple: Program the computer to be able to perform a set of progressively smaller rotations, which it can then apply on one of the points of a known right-angled triangle—say, the $45^\circ-45^\circ-90^\circ$ isosceles right triangle with hypotenuse $1$—until it reaches the angle, and thus the measurements, of desired triangle.

Rotating a vertex to find $\sin(75^\circ) \approx 0.97\ldots/1$.

By itself, this eliminates the need to store an immense table—roughly speaking, each new smaller rotation refines the result to an additional binary digit of accuracy, and all that needs to be stored are the instructions for rotating by that angle. Indeed, similar methods were used for those hand-generated tables: the method described so far is a geometric perspective on using the angle-sum trigonometric identities. Volder’s algorithm, however, doesn’t stop there. It adds in two crucial details that computers just adore:

  • Don’t choose your set of rotations by progressively halving the angle—choose them by halving their tangents: $\tan(45^\circ)=1$, $\tan(26.56\ldots^\circ)=\frac{1}{2}$, $\tan(14.03\ldots^\circ)=\frac{1}{4}$…
  • Instead of performing a true rotation, attach the side of a right triangle with the desired angle to the old hypotenuse, creating what Richard Parris calls a fan

Building a fan to approximate a $40^\circ$- angle.

Both of these refinements to the scheme would seem to make our lives more difficult; after all, we lose both the nice rational angles and the hypotenuse that stays obligingly fixed at length 1. We shall see, however, that the actual computations are more straightforward, and are even simpler in binary arithmetic. If you are particularly fond of transformation matrices, you can pause your reading right now to work out why this is on your own (or read it in Richard Parris’ excellent “Elementary Functions and Calculators“)—but if you’d like to see a more purely geometric explanation, read on!

CORDIC: A geometric justification

Let’s look at a simple example of these rules in action. Say we have a right-angled triangle with sides of length $a$, $b$, and $c$, following well-trod convention. Let $c$ be the hypotenuse, and let side $a$ be adjacent to an angle $\theta$:

A right-angled triangle.

We then attach to the hypotenuse a triangle with a tangent ratio of $\frac{1}{2}$—that is, such that the side opposite the angle $\varphi$ is half the length of the side next to it. This opposite side, then, has length $\frac{c}{2}$:

Attaching a triangle with a tangent ratio of $\frac{1}{2}$.

And what of the triangle we want—a right-angled triangle with angle $\theta+\varphi$? Consider a vertical drawn from the opposite angle of the new triangle, perpendicular to side $a$, and a horizontal from the opposite angle of the original triangle perpendicular to side $b$:

A triangle with angle $\theta + \varphi$.

We then have the marked congruent angles—so the right triangle created by the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal is similar to the original triangle, and indeed is simply a triangle half the size, rotated by $90^\circ$! Thus, the dimensions of a right triangle with angle $\theta+\varphi$ can be $a-\frac{b}{2}$ on the adjacent side, and $b+\frac{a}{2}$ on the opposite side:

The side-lengths of the triangle with angle $\theta + \varphi$.

Similarly, we find sides of $a+\frac{b}{2}$ and $b-\frac{a}{2}$ for the triangle with angle $\theta-\varphi$, and would find $b+\frac{a}{2^n}$ and $a-\frac{b}{2^n}$ if we had sought $\varphi$ with a tangent halved n times. The change in the side lengths will always be given by that little triangle, which — as its sides are constructed parallel to those of the original triangle — will always be similar to the original triangle, with its scale determined by the tangent ratio of the new triangle in the fan.

What your calculator (maybe) does

To build out the fan and track the coordinates of the point, we only need to repeat this little divide-and-add process until we get close enough to the desired angle. For a binary computer, this is easy. Dividing by two is a simple matter of moving the decimal over by one place; dividing by $2^n$, moving the decimal point over by $n$ places. Many simpler calculators use binary-coded decimal instead of pure binary—storing each digit of a decimal number individually in binary representation—which adds some wrinkles, but follows fundamentally the same principle. All that remains is addition.

For calculation of the sine and cosine ratios, we need only one further piece of information: the length of the hypotenuse. Here the “fan” is helpful, especially if we make one further proviso—we never leave an angle, or triangle, out. Then the component triangles of the fan are fixed, and in return for losing a bit of speed in narrowing in on the correct angle, we can have the computer memorise the length of the hypotenuse of the final, thinnest triangle in the fan—that same line will be the hypotenuse of the desired triangle!

Let us walk through this process, in binary, with the example a four-step fan for $40^\circ$ illustrated above. We start with an isosceles right triangle with legs of length 1. This gives us our initial coordinates $\left(x_0,y_0\right)$ of $\left(1,1\right)$. We then subtract the the half-tangent right triangle, about $26^\circ$ (below, a subscript “$d$” indicates the number is in base-10):
\[x_1 = x_0+\frac{y_0}{2_d^{1_d}} = 1+\frac{1}{2_d} = 1+0.1=1.1\]
\[y_1 = y_0-\frac{x_0}{2_d^{1_d}} = 1-\frac{1}{2_d} = 1-0.1 = 0.1\]
Then we add the quarter-tangent triangle, about $14^\circ$:
\[x_2 = x_1-\frac{y_1}{2_d^{2_d}} =1.1-\frac{0.1}{4_d}= 1.1-0.001=1.011\]
\[y_2 = y_1+\frac{x_1}{2_d^{2_d}} =0.1+\frac{1.1}{4_d} = 0.1+0.011 = 0.111\]
And finally, we add the eighth-tangent triangle, or about $7^\circ$, to arrive at an angle of $39.6^\circ$:
\[x_3 = x_2-\frac{y_2}{2_d^{3_d}} =1.011-\frac{0.111}{8_d}= 1.011-0.000111=1.010001\]
\[y_3 = y_2+\frac{x_2}{2_d^{3_d}} =0.111+\frac{1.011}{8_d} = 0.111+0.001011 = 1.000011\]
Transitioning back into decimal, this gives us an $x$-coordinate of about 1.27 and a $y$-coordinate of about 1.047. Repeated application of the Pythagorean theorem, meanwhile, tells us that the length of the hypotenuse of the eighth-tangent triangle—shared by the hypotenuse of the combined $39.6^\circ$ triangle—is about 1.64. So, $\sin(40^\circ)\approx \frac{1.047}{1.64} = 0.638$. This is pretty close to the actual three-place value of 0.643—but it should be noted that $40^\circ$ is one of the more convenient angles to reach in this fashion. A more usual implementation of CORDIC would be set to halve the tangent twenty or thirty times to ensure accuracy past five decimal places.

So, we can calculate since and cosine with only one computationally costly task: dividing by a set number at the end. Those computational costs, though, have been decreasing, and CORDIC’s clever algorithmic thriftiness has begun to fall from favour. Intel’s CPUs haven’t used CORDIC since the days of the 486, and even some modern graphing calculators have dropped the method in favour of the polynomial approach. But even though CORDIC may someday cease to be a tool people use themselves, its incredible simplicity, cheap implementation, and proven accuracy will keep it in use in dedicated processors and purpose-built machines for as long as speciality electronics needs to know how to measure triangles.

An exercise for the reader

As the hyperbolic trigonometric functions share many basic properties with their circle-trigonometric counterparts, it may come as little surprise that CORDIC can also evaluate $\sinh$, $\cosh$, $\tanh$, and the rest of the hyperbolic ratios — though values on hyperbola can shift fast enough to leave ‘gaps’ that hyperbolic-tangent–halving alone can’t reach. Curiously, though, the fact that $\cosh(x)+\sinh(x)=e^x$ means that the basic CORDIC method can even be adapted to evaluate exponents and logarithms. If you can describe a geometric justification for the hyperbolic, exponential, or logarithmic variants like the circular case above, please let me know — I’m tired of looking at matrices.'

W.L. Feldhusen is a mathematics educator in southern Vermont. They take particular interest in the history of mathematics teaching, the history of calculation, and in laboured geometric interpretations for straightforward bits of algebra.
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