Example #1

Big Integers

The time has come to give you an extended example. This will, hopefully, give you a better idea of how some of the features I've been talking about in the lessons work in a real program. The short examples in my lessons are fine, but they don't give you the big picture.

In this example, I want to develop a useful numeric class. In particular, I will create a class big_int. Objects of this class will act just like normal integers, but they will have a much greater capacity. In particular, they will support integers with up to 256 decimal digits. Although it is rare to need such large integers, there are applications for which they are essential. By creating an appropriate class, with a complete set of overloaded operators, using such integers can be made very natural.

An even more useful version of big_int would allow the number of digits to grow dynamically to whatever was necessary. Creating such a class is more complicated and requires techniques that we haven't covered yet. For now my arbitrary limit of 256 decimal digits should be sufficient.

As is typical, class big_int comes in two files. The first, big_int.hpp, contains the class definition. The various supporting functions will all be in big_int.cpp. Any program that wishes to use big_int objects will need to #include "big_int.hpp" and also compile big_int.cpp into the program.

What operations should big_int support?

When designing an abstract type this is the central question. My goal is to have big_int behave like a normal integer. This means

  1. It should have some constructors to allow it to be initialized.

  2. It should support "all the usual" math operations.

  3. It should support relational tests.

  4. It should support I/O operations.

I can capture these requirements in the following declarations

namespace vtc {

  class big_int {
    friend std::ostream &operator<<(std::ostream &, const big_int &);
    friend std::istream &operator>>(std::istream &, big_int &);
      // I/O operations.

    friend bool operator==(const big_int &, const big_int &);
    friend bool operator< (const big_int &, const big_int &);
      // Relational operators.

        // Default constructor.

      big_int(long number);
        // Allows a big_int to be initialized with a normal int.

      void operator+=(const big_int &);
      void operator-=(const big_int &);
      void operator*=(const big_int &);
      void operator/=(const big_int &);
      void operator%=(const big_int &);
        // All the usual math operations.

      // To be determined.


This class definition provides for two constructors, the two basic I/O functions, two relational operators, and the "in place" math operators. The in place math operators are member functions and would be used like this

int main()
  big_int X, Y;

  X += Y;  // Really X.operator+=(Y);

  // etc...

The in place operators are actually more basic than the usual binary operators. It is very easy to implement the binary operators in terms of the in place operators. Thus the header file needs to also include the following inline functions

namespace vtc {

  inline big_int operator+(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { big_int temp(left); temp += right; return temp; }

  inline big_int operator-(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { big_int temp(left); temp -= right; return temp; }

  inline big_int operator*(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { big_int temp(left); temp *= right; return temp; }

  inline big_int operator/(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { big_int temp(left); temp /= right; return temp; }

  inline big_int operator%(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { big_int temp(left); temp %= right; return temp; }


Each of these functions creates a local big_int named temp and initializes it (using the new-style syntax) to be a copy of left. It then uses the in place operator defined in the class to do the computation and leave the result in temp. Finally it returns temp. That's all there is to these functions.

Similarly of the six relational operators, you only need to define two. The other four are easily expressed in terms of the first two.

namespace vtc {

  inline bool operator!=(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { return !(left == right); }

  inline bool operator>=(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { return !(left < right); }

  inline bool operator>(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { return right < left; }

  inline bool operator<=(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    { return right >= left; }


Supporting "all the usual" math and relational operations is not as difficult as it seems! I should point out, however, that in some cases you might want to write out all of these functions individually. Defining one function in terms of others does not always lead to an acceptably efficient implementation. However, if your primary interest is to get the class up and running you can often leave issues of efficiency for a later revision.

Now that I have defined which operations I want to support, I need to think about how to represent big_ints. I need to think about the private section of the class.

There are numerous possibilities, but for now I will go with something quite simple. I will use an array of short integers to represent the digits. Each element of the array will be a number from 0 to 9 and there will be 256 elements in the array. I will use the zeroth array element as the least significant digit. Since each array element only needs to hold a number from 0 to 9, I decided to use short integer array elements to save memory. This is an application where using characters to hold numbers would be sensible, but using characters that way is unusual and I felt it might make my example confusing.

Since I want big_ints to handle both positive and negative numbers, I will create a flag member that holds the sign information only. The digits in the array will always be positive.

This representation means that every big_int object will take about 260 bytes of memory. That's a fair amount. In general I hope to avoid copying big_int objects whenever I can. This is one major reason for using reference parameters on all the functions.

The attached header file, big_int.hpp, embodies these declarations. There are a few other minor issues discussed in that file, please take a quick look at it. These operations should allow me to declare big_int objects, initialize them with numbers, and compute with them normally. In addition, I can do I/O with big_ints in the same way as I can use for regular integers.

The implementation file is where I will put the definitions of all the (non-inline) functions. When I have completed writing (and testing) all of these functions, my job will be done and big_int will be ready to deploy.

I will start with the default constructor. Let it set the big_int it is constructing to zero.

namespace vtc {

    sign = 1;  // Zero is positive.

    for (int i = 0; i < 256; i++) {
      digits[i] = 0;


The constructor function needs to initialize the members. Here I set the sign flag to one to indicate a positive number and zero out all of the digits. Notice that this implementation allows for the possibility of both a positive and negative zero. Mathematically, +0 == -0. It would be necessary to consider this possibility in the comparison functions for big_int. However, instead of doing that I will simple make sure that -0 is never created. This tends to be a more satisfactory solution in the long run.

In the function above I use

for (int i = 0; ...

to declare and initialize the loop index right inside the loop. This is legal in C++ (also in C99). The scope of the loop index created this way is confined to the loop body. The object i is undeclared below the loop.

The other constructor is a bit harder. It is supposed to initialize a big_int with a normal number. Yet my representation of big_ints is quite different than the way normal numbers are stored. I'll have to break the normal number into individual digits.

namespace vtc {

  big_int::big_int(long number)
    int i;

    // Set the sign flag appropriately. Make sure number is positive.
    sign = 1;
    if (number < 0) {
      sign = -1;
      number = -number;

    // Zero out ALL the digits to start. When the constructor begins
    // executing the data members have indeterminate values.
    for (i = 0; i < 256; i++) {
      digits[i] = 0;

    // Now get the individual digits of number, one at a time.
    i = 0;
    while (number != 0) {
      digits[i] = static_cast<short>(number % 10);
      number /= 10;


In this function I use

static_cast<short>(number % 10)

to convert the result of number % 10 into a short integer. This conversion is definitely safe since the result will definitely fit into a short, but I don't want the compiler warning me about my trying to put a long into a short. You might be familiar with the C style cast

(short)(number % 10);

This works in C++ as well, but it is considered old fashion. On the rare occasions when you need to do a type conversion you should use the newer style.

Next I will implement the addition operation. This operation has to work on two big_int objects: the first is implicit and the second is explicit. Since this is a method it has direct access to the object against which is is invoked (the left operand of the operator). It can access the members of the object provided as a parameter using the dot operator in the usual way.

namespace vtc {

  void big_int::operator+=(const big_int &right)
    // If both operands are positive or if both are negative, we
    // just add their absolute values and leave the sign alone.
    // Notice below how I access the left operand's members directly
    // and the right operands members using the dot operator.
    if (sign == right.sign) {
      short sum, carry = 0;
      for (int i = 0; i < 256; i++) {
        sum       = digits[i] + right.digits[i] + carry;
        digits[i] = sum % 10;
        carry     = sum / 10;
      // No overflow checking!

    // The signs are different. In that case I really need to subtract.
    else {
      std::cerr << "big_int::operator+=(): "
        "Addition of unlike signs not yet implemented!\n";

To keep this example short, I'm not going to bother implementing every detail of big_int here. The case where the two numbers being added have different signs is harder because I first need to figure out which has a larger absolute magnitude and keep track of the resulting sign flag appropriately. It is my intention for this class to properly handle negatives in every way, but for now I just put in an error message that will trigger if anyone attempts to use the unimplemented facilities. The C++ feature of exceptions is a better way to report an error like this. I will cover exceptions in a later lesson.

The subtraction, multiplication, and division operators must also be written but again, in the interests of keeping this example short, I will skip those for now. I leave the implementation of those operations as an exercise for the reader.

Let me now turn my attention to the relational operators.

namespace vtc {

  bool operator==(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    // To be equal, they must have the same sign. No -0 allowed.
    if (left.sign != right.sign) return false;

    // They must also have all identical digits.
    for (int i = 0; i < 256; i++) {
      if (left.digits[i] != right.digits[i]) return false;

    // If I get here, they must be equal.
    return true;


Since this function is not a method, I don't have implicit access to either operand. I thus have to use the dot operator on both the left and right operands. However, because this function is a friend of big_int I do have the ability to access the private section of the operands without a problem.

This function also uses the C++ type bool to handle true/false values. In C, one just uses int for this purpose, but C++ has a real, built-in type you can (and should) use instead. The keywords true and false are the only values you can legitimately put into a bool object.

The operator< function is a little trickier, particular when it comes to dealing with negative values properly.

namespace vtc {

  bool operator<(const big_int &left, const big_int &right)
    if (left.sign < right.sign) return true;
    if (left.sign > right.sign) return false;
      // Here I use the fact that -1 < 1 to check for situations where
      // the two numbers have a different sign. After getting through
      // this the two numbers must have the same sign.

    if (left.sign == 1) {
      // The two numbers are both positive.
      for (int i = 255; i >=0; i--) {
        if (left.digits[i] < right.digits[i]) return true;
        if (left.digits[i] > right.digits[i]) return false;
        // Otherwise these two digits are equal. Let's try the next pair.
    else {
      // The two numbers are both negative.
      for (int i = 255; i >=0; i--) {
        if (left.digits[i] < right.digits[i]) return false;
        if (left.digits[i] > right.digits[i]) return true;
        // Otherwise these two digits are equal. Let's try the next pair.

    // If I get here the two numbers must have had all equal digits.
    return false;


Okay, now what about those I/O functions? The inserter is not too difficult.

namespace vtc {

  std::ostream &operator<<(std::ostream &os, const big_int &right)
    int i;

    if (right.sign == -1) os << "-";
      // Print a minus sign if the number is negative.

    // Find the first non-zero digit.
    for (i = 255; i >= 0; i--) {
      if (right.digits[i] != 0) break;

    // If the above loop didn't break, then there were no non-zero
    // digits. Thus the number is 0.
    if (i == -1) os << "0";
    else {
      // Print the number, one digit at a time.
      while (i >= 0) {
        os << right.digits[i];


This function avoids printing out leading zeros (a good thing since there might be a couple of hundred of them) and handles negative numbers properly. It does not mimic the formatting features of the built-in types. For example if the caller uses the setw manipulator to set a field width before trying to print a big_int, it won't work as expected. This can be corrected, but doing so is beyond the scope of this example.

The extractor function is tricky. It needs to read the input a character at a time. If it tries to read an integer with the standard extractor, it would overflow when trying to read a very big integer. Again, in the interest of keeping my example short, I won't bother implementing that function here.

See big_int.cpp for the overall results so far. I invite you to enhance and extend this class. Fill in the other functions so that it is more generally useful!

Note: to properly complete this example, I need to also talk about testing the big_int class

© Copyright 2006 by Peter C. Chapin.
Last Revised: May 27, 2006