RS-232 is a standard for serial communication transmission of data. It formally defines the signals connecting between a DTE (data terminal equipment) such as a computer terminal, and a DCE (data circuit-terminating equipment or data communication equipment), such as a modem. The RS-232 standard is commonly used in computer serial ports. The standard defines the electrical characteristics and timing of signals, the meaning of signals, and the physical size and pinout of connectors. The current version of the standard is TIA-232-F Interface Between Data Terminal Equipment and Data Circuit-Terminating Equipment Employing Serial Binary Data Interchange, issued in 1997.

RS-232 was first introduced in 1962 by the Radio Sector of the EIA. The original DTEs were electromechanical teletypewriters, and the original DCEs were (usually) modems. When electronic terminals (smart and dumb) began to be used, they were often designed to be interchangeable with teletypewriters, and so supported RS-232.

RS-232 Serial Data Transmission

The data is sent serially on RS232, each bit is sent one after the next because there is only one data line in each direction. This mode of data transmission also requires that the receiver knows when the actual data bits are arriving so that it can synchronize itself to the incoming data. To achieve this a logic 0 is sent as a start bit for the synchronization. This is followed by the data itself and there are normally seven or eight bits. The receiver obviously has to know how many data bits to expect, and there are often small dual in line switches either on the back of the equipment or inside it to set this information.

Data on RS232 is normally sent using ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange). However other codes including the Murray Code or EBCDIC (Extended Binary Coded Decimal Interchange Code) can be used equally well.

After the data itself a parity bit is sent. Again this requires setting because it is optional and it can be even or odd parity. This is used to check the correctness of the received data and it can indicate whether the data has an odd or even number of logic ones. Unlike many systems these days there is no facility for error correction.

Finally a stop bit is sent. This is normally one bit long and is used to signify the end of a particular byte. Sometimes two stop bits are required and again this is an option that can often be set on the equipment.

RS232 data transmission is normally asynchronous. However transmit and receive speeds must obviously be the same. A certain degree of tolerance is allowed. Once the start bit is sent the receiver will sample the center of each bit to see the level. Within each data word the synchronization must not differ by more than half a bit length otherwise the incorrect data will be seen. Fortunately this is very easy to achieve with today’s accurate bit or baud rate generators.

RS-232 Voltage levels

In order that the RS 232 transmitters and receivers can be designed to a common standard, it is necessary to define the voltage levels that constitute the two logical states required for data transmission. The two states are defined as in the table below:



It is also necessary to define the voltage states for the control signals as these are widely used within RS 232. Examples of control lines include request to send (RTS), clear to send (CTS), data terminal ready (DTR), and data set ready (DSR).



RS-232 Handshaking

In order that data can be exchanged on an RS 232 link, the control signals must indicate that the equipment at either end of the link is ready to send the data and ready to receive the data. This can be achieved in a number of ways, but one of the more common is to use the RTS , CTS, and DTR lines.

These lines are found in the Data Terminal Equipment, DTE and Data Communications Equipment, DCE as follows:

RS232 Handshake


The handshaking exchange to start the data flow is quite straightforward and can be seen as a number of distinct stages:

  1. RTS is put in the ON state by the DTE
  2. The DCE then put the CTS line into the ON state
  3. The DTE then responds by placing the DTR line into the ON state.
  4. The DTR line remains on while data is being transmitted.

At the end of the transmission, DTR and RTS are pulled to the OFF state and then the DCE pulls the CTS line to the OFF state. This series of handshake controls was devised to allow the DTE to request control of the communications link from the related modem, and then to let the modem inform the terminal equipment that the control has been acquired. In this way the communications will only take place when both ends of the link are ready.


The RS 232 data communications standard is a reliable for of data communications which has been used for many years and shows every sign of being used for many years to come. In order that it is able to communicate satisfactorily the RS 232 signals and voltage levels must be able to ensure that the line receivers are able to decode the data with no errors and that the communications protocols are adhered to. One these are all established, then data can be exchanged reliably and efficiently.

About Deepak Devanand

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