Computers without Clocks; August 2002; Scientific American Magazine; by Ivan E. Sutherland and Jo Ebergen; 8 Page(s)
How fast is your personal computer? When people ask this question, they are typically referring to the frequency of a minuscule clock inside the computer, a crystal oscillator that sets the basic rhythm used throughout the machine. In a computer with a speed of one gigahertz, for example, the crystal "ticks" a billion times a second. Every action of the computer takes place in tiny steps, each a billionth of a second long. A simple transfer of data may take only one step; complex calculations may take many steps. All operations, however, must begin and end according to the clock's timing signals.
Because most modern computers use a single rhythm, we call them synchronous. Inside the computer's microprocessor chip, a clock distribution system delivers the timing signals from the crystal oscillator to the various circuits, just as sound in air delivers the beat of a drum to soldiers to set their marching pace. Because all parts of the chip share the same rhythm, the output of any circuit from one step can serve as the input to any other circuit for the next step. The synchronization provided by the clock helps chip designers plan sequences of actions for the computer.