History of Random Number Generators & How They Work

Random number generators have been a part of human civilization for thousands of years. There is evidence that people used random number generation over five thousand years ago. It started with using dice and coins to randomize things, and it has involved into using complex computer software to generate numbers randomly. However, in that time, there have been several stops along the way. Over the years, there have been many evolutions in random number generations. Notably, the 20th century started to take random number generators from the dark ages and into the future of online casinos and beyond. Following World War II, experts developed the first automatic random number generator.

Random number generators are used in several ways in the modern-day. Notably, they are used at some of the best online casinos in the world to ensure that everything about games, promotions and bonuses are fair and players have the best experience they can have. However, random number generators are used for more things than fun outlets. They are also used for scientific experiments and to run programs on computers. Without random number generators, we would not have many essential things that we use in day to day life.

Random Number Generators Thousands of Years Ago

When you think of random number generators, you probably think about a program that you use on a computer, but you do not need a computer for random number generation. In fact, as mentioned, the first random number generator can be traced back to thousands of years ago.

There are 5000-year-old dice that have been dug up in Iran and Iraq. 4000-year-old dice were also discovered in India, China, and Egypt. The people back then did not believe they were using a random number generator. Instead, they thought the outcomes were determined by God.

The Roman Empire is also known to have used random number generators for significant decisions. Coins were used to determine whether people would live or die in some scenarios. However, like the people who were using dice years before, Rome’s people believed that God was acting through the coin to tell them what to do.

Tables of Random Sampling Numbers

Unfortunately for statisticians, rolling dice to take random samples proved to be slow and inconvenient. As a result, innovations to random number generation were made in 1927. A table was published with 41,600 random digits taken from a 1925 census report. They also did this with the phone book, and tests were run to detect periodic behavior.

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The first machine to produce random numbers was developed in 1938. It was a cardboard disc divided into 10 sectors. It rotated 250 times per minute, and a light beam would flash at random times, roughly every 2 seconds. The flash sector was recorded by a human, and they made a table of 100,000 sampling numbers.

The RAND Corporation Project of a Million Random Digits

When computers started to be used by scientists and government agencies, they quickly discovered that books were not convenient for random sampling. As a result, a project to produce a million random digits in a fully automated way was started. An electronic device emits pulses randomly, about 100,000 per second. Every second they would count how many pulses there were, and the values were mapped to decimal digits. Digits were saved on 20,000 punched cards, 50 per card. It was found that odd digits were slightly more frequent. The million digit book was published in 1955, and it was reissued in paperback in 2001.

Generating Random Numbers on the Fly

Although having a record of randomly generated numbers is interesting, it did not have a very practical use. It was certainly too slow for most scientific projects. Thus came the Electronic Number Indicator Equipment or ERNIE in 1957. It could produce 50 random digits per second, and it was used to determine the winning numbers in the British Savings Bonds Lottery.

The original ERNIE was used until 1972. However, at that point, there was a need for a quicker random number generator, so the ERINE 4 was developed. After the development of the ERNIE 4, random generators remained stagnant until the internet age, when they became available for everyone to use at any time.

What Are Random Number Generators Used For?

Random number generators have been used for thousands of years, but their uses have changed significantly. They started as dice being thrown or coins being flipped to determine life and death, and it was believed that the outcome was determined by God. Today everyone that has access to an electronic device can pull up a random generator if they want.

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Random number generators are used for many different purposes in the modern-day. The most obvious way they are used is to create random numbers for gambling and create unpredictable results in video games. However, it is also used in cryptography.

Cryptography requires numbers that attackers cannot guess. As a result, encrypters cannot just use the same numbers over and over because the attackers will be able to figure that out. So, numbers need to be generated in a way that attackers will not guess them. These numbers are essential for secure encryption in government files and even in your own files on the internet.

Generating True Random Numbers

Now that you know what random number generators are and a little bit about their history, you are probably wondering how these numbers are generated in modern devices. To generate true random numbers, the computer measures a physical phenomenon that takes place outside of the computer. For example, it might measure the radioactive decay of an atom. There is no way to determine when radioactive decay will occur in quantum theory, so it is essentially random. So, the computer will determine a random number, making it impossible for attackers to figure out the value.

What Are Pseudo Random Numbers?

Pseudo random numbers are an alternative to true random numbers. They look random, and they feel random, but they are not truly random. They will be predicable in a complicated way because when generating pseudo-random numbers, the computer does not take random data from the environment.

Pseudo random numbers are not bad in every situation. For example, it is not necessary for numbers to be truly random in a video game as long as events appear random. However, if you are encrypting computer files, it is necessary to generate numbers without any pattern.

The NSA and Intel’s Hardware Random Number Generator

Today, almost everyone has a computer, and one of the biggest computer developers is Intel. They produce processors for computers all around the world, and as a result, they need to make sure that their processors are strong enough to power everything you might want to run on a computer like your favorite games. However, Intel chips also include a hardware based random number generator known as RdRand. The chip uses an entropy source on the processor and provides random numbers when the software asks for them.

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Unfortunately, this random number generator is essentially a black box that computer owners do not have access to. So, if it contained an NSA backdoor, it would be possible for the government to break encryption keys that were generated with data supplied by that random number generator. This is a serious concern for the people that are aware of it, and as a result, FreeBSD’s developers removed their support for RdRand as a source of randomness.

In the modern day, it is common for people to fear that the government is looking at their data and using it for things they are not comfortable with. Fortunately, Linux started working on the way to eliminate the risk of backdoor entry through these black boxes in 2013. They further randomized the data coming from RdRand so that it would not be predictable even if there were a backdoor.

Simplifying Random Number Generation

All of the things we talked about might sound confusing, but random number generators are simple to understand if you do not worry about all the algorithms involved. In essence, what they come down to is a computer taking data from the environment and using that data to generate random data. Computers look for things that happen randomly in the world, and they use that randomness to generate random numbers of their own. This way, there is no risk that the numbers generated have some complex pattern that could be cracked by experienced hackers.

Enjoy Random Number Generators Now That You Know About Their History

After reading, we hope you have all the information you could ever need to know about random number generators. It might sound crazy that the concept of generating randomness was first put to use 5000 years ago with dice and coins, but it is true. Over the years, there have been several advancements that have made it possible for millions of numbers to be randomly generated in a second. Today almost everyone has access to random number generators at all times of the day.

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