The square root function for an old (pre-IEEE floating point, no hidden bit) mainframe (the Soviet BESM-6 works as follows:

  1. Making sure the argument $X$ is non-negative
  2. Splitting $X$ into the exponent $E$ and the 40-bit mantissa $M$, the latter being in $[0.5, 1.0)$.
  3. Computing $T := -0.204405847 M^2 + 0.890194099 M + 0.313567057$
  4. Computing $Y := 2^{E/2} T$ (by setting the exponent to $[E/2]$ and optionally multiplying by $\sqrt 2$ if $E$ was odd).
  5. Performing two iterations of $Y := (X/Y+Y)/2$

This is claimed to produce results which are within a ulp of the exact value, which looks reasonable, because $T$ is within less than $0.001$ from the exact value of $\sqrt M$ (that is, 10 bits of the mantissa are correct), and each iteration doubles the precision; but it prompts a question:

Is it possible to make an educated guess how they have come up with those particular coefficients for the quadratic fit?

Here is the assembly pseudocode, with machine specifics omitted, of the relevant part of the function, for the sake of historical accuracy:

   LOAD arg
   ADDEXP 0     ; forces normalization
   MODE boolean
   JZ (linkreg) ; arg is exactly zero, return zero
   MODE sign
   JNZ errsqrt  ; arg was negative 
   SHR 1        ; the LSB of the exponent moves to the sign
                ; and the exponent which was offset by 64, is halved
   SUBEXP X     ; zeroes out the exponent value; acc is now in [0.5, 1)
   MUL S2
   ADD S1
   MUL Y
   ADD S0
   ADDEXP 32
   ADDEXP Z     ; now the exponent field of the accumulator is 64+[E/2]
   MODE sign,noround ; I don't know why rounding is suppressed here
   JZ L1        ; the exponent of arg was even
   MUL R2
   DIV Y
   ADD Y
   ADDEXP -1
   DIV Y
   ADD Y
   ADDEXP -1
   J (linkreg)
* number format is [7 bit - exponent+64], 1 bit sign, 40 bit mantissa
S2 CONST oct'3722726016750030'
S1 CONST oct’4016174360527114’
S0 CONST oct’3752021367076726’
R2 CONST oct’4053240474631772’
X  BSS 1
Y  BSS 1
Z  BSS 1
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ For comparison: My own polynomial minimax approximation generator based on the Remez algorithm, using a relative error criterion, spits out this approximation: -0.204405832*x^2 + 0.890194073*x + 0.313567067. That's almost identical. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 9:48
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @njuffa This nails it down and solves OP's question completely it seems. If you write it as an answer you have my upvote! :) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 10:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ David G. Moursund, "Optimal Starting Values for Newton-Raphson Calculation of √x", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 10, No. 7, July 1967, pp. 430-432 gives some minimax approximations optimized for relative error. It lists, among other approximations, the following for sqrt(x) in [0.5, 1]: -0.204405874000*x^2 + 0.890194258460*x + 0.313567132598 $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 18:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ J. Eve, "Starting approximations for the iterative calculation of square roots." The Computer Journal, Vol. 6, No. 3, Nov. 1963, pp. 274-276 gives this quadratic minimax approximation to sqrt(x) on [0.5, 1] optimized for relative error: -0.204445x^2 + 0.890245*x + 0.313553 $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 18:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @njuffa I've added the actual assembly code in a readable form. $\endgroup$
    – Leo B.
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 21:28

3 Answers 3


My first guess was that they computed a minimax best-approximation polynomial to $\sqrt{x}$ on [0,5,1] with something like the Remez algorithm. However, plotting the difference $p(x)-\sqrt{x}$ I do not see 4 points of equioscillation, so this is not the polynomial that minimizes $$\max_{x\in [0.5,1]} |p(x)-\sqrt{x}|.$$

Maybe that 0.001 that they tried to minimize is a relative error and not an absolute one -- I don't know the theory for that case. Or maybe someone didn't know the Remez algorithm and just computed a suboptimal solution optimizing directly with gradient descent.

(Step 4 is Newton's method for $Y^2-X=0$, but probably you already know that.)

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ From personal design experience: Yes, one would optimize for relative error for the starting approximation. And using that the equi-oscillation of the error function is there (Wolfram Alpha plot) $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 9:22
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa Thanks for stepping in with useful information! I wasn't sure if the equioscillation theorem still holds in the case of the relative error, but I guess that's the case. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 9:58

If my computer history is not wrong, no one would use the initial guess obtained from the quadratic polynomial you provided and use the algorithm you suggested. This is due to two reasons: floating-point division was much more expensive than multiplication (up to 32x -or more if implemented in software- compared to 4x today) and obtaining the initial guess from the quadratic polynomial is more expensive than one step of the Newton iterations.

In fact, when I was teaching, I had my students analyze an algorithm which computes the reciprocal of a number without using division. Here is the excerpt:

For computers, it is easy to add, subtract and multiply. However, it is harder to divide, exponentiate, take logarithms, etc. With all of their ingenuity, many smart people offered solutions to make these operations more efficient. For example, SRT division algorithm uses lookup tables, and it is commonly used in microprocessor design (see Pentium FDIV bug for a historical issue regarding Intel's implementation of SRT algorithm). We can also use Newton's method to reduce division to addition, subtraction and multiplication.

a. Find a function $f(x)$ such that the root $x^*$ of $f$ is the reciprocal of a given non-zero number $d$. Newton's method for the function $f$ MUST only contain addition, subtraction and multiplication as operations.

b. Define the error $\varepsilon_i = 1 - dx_i$, show that $\varepsilon_i = \varepsilon_{i-1}^2$. Hence, the convergence of Newton's method for finding the reciprocal is quadratic.

c. Assume that $0.5\leq d\leq 1$. If we choose our initial guess $x_0 = p(d) = \frac{48}{17}-\frac{32}{17}d$, what is the maximum value of the error $\varepsilon(d) = 1 - dp(d)$ in absolute value? Show your work.

d. Assuming $0.5\leq d\leq 1$ and $x_0 = p(d) = \frac{48}{17}-\frac{32}{17}d$, what is the maximum number of steps $k$ required to ensure $\varepsilon_k<10^{-17}$?

e. Explain why we would want to avoid other stopping criteria and exclusively use the number of iterations as the stopping condition in this case.

And here is a solution:

a. $f(x) = 1/x - d$ works for this purpose, since $f(1/d) = 1/(1/d) - d = d - d = 0$ and $$x_{i+1} = x_i - f(x_i)/f^{\prime}(x_i) = x_i - \frac{1/x_i - d}{-1/x_i^2} = x_i + x_i(1-dx_i)= x_i(2-dx_i) $$

b. \begin{align*} \varepsilon_{i+1} &= 1 - dx_{i+1} = 1 - dx_i(2-dx_i) \\ &= d^2x_i^2 - 2dx_i + 1 = (1 - dx_i)^2 \\ &= \varepsilon_i^2. \end{align*}

c. Consider $\varepsilon(d) = 1 - dp(d)$. Since $\varepsilon(d)$ is continuous on the interval $[0.5,1]$, by E.V.T, there must be extrema of $\varepsilon(d)$ on this interval. We know that these extrema are achieved either at the end points or at the critical points. Note that, $\varepsilon(0.5)=1/17$ and $\varepsilon(1)=1/17$. $\varepsilon^{\prime}(d) = \frac{48}{17}-\frac{32}{17}d + d(-\frac{32}{17}) = \frac{48}{17}-\frac{64}{17}d$ is zero only if $d=3/4$, but $\varepsilon(3/4)=-1/17$. So we can conclude that the maximum value of the error in absolute value is $1/17$.

d. From part b, we know that $\varepsilon_i = \dots = \varepsilon_0^{2^i}$ and from part c, we know that $|\varepsilon_0|<1/17$ for any initial guess $x_0 = p(d)$. So $\varepsilon_{i+1}< (1/17)^{2^i}$ and we want $(1/17)^{2^i}<10^{-17}$. Applying $\log_{10}$ to both sides, we obtain $2^i\log_{10}(1/17)<-17$ or, equivalently, $2^i>17/\log_{10}(17)$. Further, applying $\log_2$ to both sides, we get $i>\log_2(17/\log_{10}(17))\approx 3.79$. Therefore, if we do $4$ iterations of Newton's method, our solution will be guaranteed to satisfy the error tolerance.

e. In some applications (for example this one), the cost of checking for convergence may be more expensive than the cost of an iteration, and it may be fine to do 1 or 2 extra iterations. Since, the Newton's method for this problem is quadratically convergent, hence, we reach the desired tolerance in just 4 iterations, it is -probably- not worth to check for other stopping criteria.

The analysis in part c in relevant to your question: you want to find an initial guess which is going to minimize the maximum error, similar to Federico Poloni's answer. However, the polynomial you find will be dependent on your error function.

Also, in your question, you provide the coefficients as floating-point numbers but afaik they would be computed exactly (by hand) and would be presented as rational numbers so that it would be robust independent of the floating-point system. That might be another reason why we don't see the points of equi-oscillation assuming Remez' algorithm is used to compute the coefficients.

(For the division algorithm, the quadratic polynomial which gives a better initial guess is $p(d):={140}/{33}+{-64}d/{11}+{256}d^2/{99}$ for example. The error in this initial guess should be -in absolute sense- less than or equal to ~0.01, and this is the best polynomial quadratic fit in the sense of minimizing the $L_{\infty}$ error over the interval $[0.5,1)$.

Again, if I remember correctly, this polynomial is obtained through using Remez' algorithm on $\max_{d\in [0.5,1]} |1-p(d)d|$)

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ For the mainframe in question (the Soviet BESM-6), division was about 3x as slow as multiplication. The docs give 18 ALU clock cycles for MUL, and 50 for DIV in average. Computing the initial guess to a 20-bit precision so that only one Newton iteration will suffice would be much more expensive. I've converted the coefficients from the binary representation in the code. It would be an interesting question whether the algorithm could be improved given our knowledge today, but I doubt it. $\endgroup$
    – Leo B.
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I think division-free Newton-Rhapson is an old algorithm. I don't know if it is as old as BESM-6, but I know that it is at least from 1986 (due to Kahan) and Kahan himself may have been aware of the algorithm earlier than that. The techniques involved in the development of the algorithm are a hundred years old, so probably, there were smart programmers around whose code worked much faster than everyone else's but didn't publish their code (or maybe they did, but nobody cared). $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 20:34
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa I didn't mean to imply that you made such a claim. I meant that probably there were people using the same (division-free) algorithm even back then. My apologies if my intentions came through wrong. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ @njuffa The quadratically-convergent iteration for the reciprocal square root ($x_{n+1} = x_n/2 * (3 - S*x_n^2)$) uses 3 multiplications, one subtraction and one exponent correction, which, in case of a division operation 3x as expensive as a multiplication, is no faster than a Newton iteration but takes more instructions. Perhaps, even if they had considered using the reciprocal square root, they might have decided it's not worth the bother. $\endgroup$
    – Leo B.
    Commented Nov 16, 2021 at 20:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @LeoB. All the evidence available, including the methodology section of Hart et al., indicate that the coefficient in the book are purely a result of executing the Remez algorithm for generating minimax approximation. But this is a numerical process, and small differences in results will occur depending on details of the Remez algorithm implementation. The techniques Abdullah Ali Sivas alludes to (taking into account number representation by specific FP formats and incorporating the details of subsequent FP computation) did not (in my recollection) come into play until about 20-25 years ago. $\endgroup$
    – njuffa
    Commented Nov 17, 2021 at 6:07

This polynomial $p(x)$ solves the minimax optimization for $$\frac{p(x)}{\sqrt{x}}-1$$ over the interval $[\tfrac12,1]$.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.