What are Tonal Bitcoins? In what application is this system of notation superior to the decimal notation? Are there any clients or other services supporting the tonal system?

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    Luke-jr is a huge supporter of Tonal. He said, "For me, Bitcoin is about one thing: providing a monetary system for the Tonal number system." Luke-jr is an active developer and an active proselytizer for Tonal, so you hear about Tonal a lot even though almost no one uses it.
    – theymos
    Jan 18, 2012 at 15:48
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    @theymos - what?! This is the first time I've heard of Tonal. Judging by Gary's answer below, this is a completely uninteresting implementation detail ... why would anyone consider Tonal Bitcoins "the one thing Bitcoin is about"? If this is true and Luke-jr meant it seriously, this might explain a few things.
    – ripper234
    Jan 18, 2012 at 16:42
  • Hmm, cudos for whoever made it for encoding hex numbers and making a counting system that doesn't have some naming exceptions (like, eleven), but who in their right mind would use the character "9" to represent the number 10 (decimal)?!
    – ThePiachu
    Jan 18, 2012 at 18:23
  • Slight grammar edit.
    – ripper234
    Jan 18, 2012 at 19:24
  • I've updated my answer to flesh out some important details regarding powers of 2 units that appear to make Tonal notation completely redundant.
    – Gary
    Jan 19, 2012 at 9:55

2 Answers 2


After taking a quick look over the Tonal Book (free PDF) and the Wikipedia article it appears to be an early attempt at constructing a number system in base 16.

Programmers will immediately recognise this as hexadecimal. For non-programmers hexadecimal uses the following representations: 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,A,B,C,D,E,F. Note that decimal 10 to 15 are represented by the single letters A to F, such that FF is decimal 255 or (16 * 15)+(1 * 15). To differentiate a decimal number from a hexadecimal number the conventions 0x10 (decimal 16) or 10h are widely recognised.

The Tonal bitcoin representation attempts to offer an alternative representation of BTC known as TBC (Tonal Bitcoin) and uses the various Tonal letters to represent them. The Tonal alphabet is more complex than the hexadecimal system and requires special fonts to be available on the systems using it.

It is unlikely that this archaic approach to base 16 is ever likely to gain traction when much more widespread approaches are available.

Units covering powers of 2 in computing

It should be noted that in 1998 the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) adopted a purely "powers of 2" approach for some use cases. Notably the representation of computer storage and data transmission rates.

This gives rise to 2 unit systems - one base 10, the other base 2:

The primary power of 10 notation we're all familiar with:

  • 1 kilo byte (kB) = 10 ^ 3 bytes
  • 1 mega byte (MB)= 10 ^ 6 bytes (historically 1000 * 1024 for some storage cases)
  • 1 giga byte (GB) = 10 ^ 9 bytes

The alternative power of 2 notation:

  • 1 kibi byte = 2 ^ 10 bytes
  • 1 mebi byte = 2 ^ 20 bytes
  • 1 gibi byte = 2 ^ 30 bytes

Thus there is even less reason to use the Tonal system since a widespread alternative with well-defined prefixes has already been ratified for some time.


Tonal Bitcoins (TBC) are an interpretation of the low-level Bitcoin system with Tonal units (similar to how BTC is a SI interpretation).

The Tonal number system is superior to decimal for virtually every human use, but is (similar to Dvorak keyboards, or your first second language) difficult to learn for people who were raised only with decimal. It is superior because humans naturally work in powers of 2, and this can be easily demonstrated in many areas: despite the common decimal system forced (literally) on societies today, people still find ways to use binary (for example, USD "quarters" or slicing pizza - ever try to slice 5 pieces?).

The Python Bitcoin client Spesmilo supports both BTC and TBC (and mixed) interpretations by configuration, provided a Tonal-compatible font is detected on your system. While the tonal system has not been officially adopted in any nation, it is a natural "next step" from some US customary units. The Tonal system, unlike the newer hexadecimal system, is complete and provides not only digits (rather than ambiguously hijacking letters) but also pronunciations, weights, measures, time, and a calendar, necessary to use it in daily life.

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    What's to respond to? The quote is legit. In particular, it was part of a response to someone arrogantly assuming his goals for Bitcoin were the only possible purpose for it. I was demonstrating (by example) how different people use Bitcoin for different reasons. Jan 18, 2012 at 23:25
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    I just don't really understand why you care so much about Tonal. To me, Bitcoin is a huge revolution ... and Tonal is an insignificant implementation detail (haven't read the pdf yet). Therefore, I can't understand why someone would claim this is the main reason they're interested in Bitcoin.
    – ripper234
    Jan 18, 2012 at 23:31
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    @Luke-Jr "it is a natural "next step" from some US customary units" - that would be the metric system, that is used everywhere, but in USA, Liberia and Myanmar - joeydevilla.com/2008/08/13/…. "humans naturally work in powers of 2" - humans use the decimal system, because they have ten fingers and its natural to use it as a base for counting. For fractions, yes, it's convenient to use halves.
    – ThePiachu
    Jan 19, 2012 at 1:24
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    @Luke-Jr SI might not be perfect, but it is the only way to go now, based on the sheer volume of academic work relying on it (try rewriting every science book that uses metric system), its completeness (Tonal doesn't have a ampere, candela or more equivalent, not to mention any derivatives), ,how widely it's adopted and available (is there even a Wikipedia article on the Tonal system? How many people use it?), or how precise it is (did anyone measure Tonal meter down to an angstrom?). Tonal is certainly an interesting place to start a hex-based system, but in its current form, it's not enough.
    – ThePiachu
    Jan 19, 2012 at 1:58
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    I'm still confused as to what the advantages are (other than more efficient storage within computers). I'd look it up in Wikipedia, but I believe it's blacked out right now... :-( Jan 19, 2012 at 2:26

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