In telecommunication, Hamming codes are a family of linear error-correcting codes that generalize the Hamming(7,4)-code invented by Richard Hamming in 1950. Hamming codes can detect up to two-bit errors or correct one-bit errors without detection of uncorrected errors. By contrast, the simple parity code cannot correct errors, and can detect only an odd number of bits in error. Hamming codes are perfect codes, that is, they achieve the highest possible rate for codes with their block length and minimum distance of three.

Early History

Hamming worked at Bell Labs in the 1940s on the Bell Model V computer, an electromechanical relay-based machine with cycle times in seconds. Input was fed in on punched cards, which would invariably have read errors. During weekdays, special code would find errors and flash lights so the operators could correct the problem. During after-hours periods and on weekends, when there were no operators, the machine simply moved on to the next job.

Hamming worked on weekends, and grew increasingly frustrated with having to restart his programs from scratch due to the unreliability of the card reader. Over the next few years, he worked on the problem of error-correction, developing an increasingly powerful array of algorithms. In 1950, he published what is now known as Hamming Code, which remains in use today in applications such as ECC memory.

Hamming codes

If more error-correcting bits are included with a message, and if those bits can be arranged such that different incorrect bits produce different error results, then bad bits could be identified. In a seven-bit message, there are seven possible single bit errors, so three error control bits could potentially specify not only that an error occurred but also which bit caused the error.

Hamming studied the existing coding schemes, including two-of-five, and generalized their concepts. To start with, he developed a nomenclature to describe the system, including the number of data bits and error-correction bits in a block. For instance, parity includes a single bit for any data word, so assuming ASCII words with seven bits, Hamming described this as an (8,7) code, with eight bits in total, of which seven are data. The repetition example would be (3,1), following the same logic. The code rate is the second number divided by the first, for our repetition example, 1/3.

Hamming also noticed the problems with flipping two or more bits, and described this as the "distance" (it is now called the Hamming distance, after him). Parity has a distance of 2, so one bit flip can be detected, but not corrected and any two bit flips will be invisible. The (3,1) repetition has a distance of 3, as three bits need to be flipped in the same triple to obtain another code word with no visible errors. It can correct one-bit errors or detect but not correct two-bit errors. A (4,1) repetition (each bit is repeated four times) has a distance of 4, so flipping three bits can be detected, but not corrected. When three bits flip in the same group there can be situations where attempting to correct will produce the wrong code word. In general, a code with distance k can detect but not correct k ? 1 errors.

Hamming was interested in two problems at once; increasing the distance as much as possible, while at the same time increasing the code rate as much as possible. During the 1940s he developed several encoding schemes that were dramatic improvements on existing codes. The key to all of his systems was to have the parity bits overlap, such that they managed to check each other as well as the data.