We are going to learn a language called C# (pronounced C sharp). If you ever make the mistake of calling the language C hash you will show your ignorance straight away! C# is a very flexible and powerful programming language with an interesting history. It was developed by Microsoft Corporation for a variety of reasons, some technical, some political and others marketing.

C# bears a strong resemblance to the C++ and Java programming languages, having borrowed (or improved) features provided by these languages. The origins of both Java and C++ can be traced back to a language called C, which is a highly dangerous and entertaining language which was invented in the early 1970s. C is famous as the language the UNIX operating system was written in, and was specially designed for this.

Dangerous C

I referred to C as a dangerous language. So what do I mean by that? Consider the chain saw. If I, Rob Miles, want to use a chainsaw I will hire one from a shop. As I am not an experienced chain saw user I would expect it to come with lots of built in safety features such as guards and automatic cut outs. These will make me much safer with the thing but will probably limit the usefulness of the tool, i.e. because of all the safety stuff I might not be able to cut down certain kinds of tree. If I was a real lumberjack I would go out and buy a professional chainsaw which has no safety features whatsoever but can be used to cut down most anything. If I make a mistake with the professional tool I could quite easily lose my leg, something the amateur machine would not let happen.

Safe C-sharp

The C# language attempts to get the best of both worlds in this respect. A C# programcan contain managed or unmanaged parts. The managed code is fussed over by the system which runs it. This makes sure that it is hard (but probably not impossible) to crash your computer running managed code. However, all this fussing comes at a price, causing your programs to run more slowly.

To get the maximum possible performance, and enable direct access to parts of the underlying computer system, you can mark your programs as unmanaged. An unmanaged program goes faster, but if it crashes it is capable of taking the computer with it. Switching to unmanaged mode is analogous to removing the guard from your new chainsaw because it gets in the way.

C-sharp and Objects

The C# language is object oriented. Objects are an organisational mechanism which let you break your program down into sensible chunks, each of which is in charge of part of the overall system. Object Oriented Design makes large projects much easier to design, test and extend. It also lets you create programs which can have a high degree of reliability and stability.

I am very keen on object oriented programming, but I am not going to tell you much about it just yet. This is not because I don't know much about it (honest) but because I believe that there are some very fundamental programming issues which need to be addressed before we make use of objects in our programs.

A first C-sharp Program

The first program that we are going to look at will read in the width and height of a window and then print out the amount of wood and glass required to make a window that will fit in a hole of that size.

Perhaps the best way to start looking at C# is to jump straight in with our first ever C# program. Here it is:

using System; class GlazerCalc { static void Main() { double width, height, woodLength, glassArea; string widthString, heightString; widthString = Console.ReadLine(); width = double.Parse(widthString); heightString = Console.ReadLine(); height = double.Parse(heightString); woodLength = 2 * ( width + height ) * 3.25 ; glassArea = 2 * ( width * height ) ; Console.WriteLine ( "The length of the wood is " + woodLength + " feet" ) ; Console.WriteLine( "The area of the glass is " + glassArea + " square metres" ) ; } }

This is a valid program. If you gave it to a C# compiler it would compile, and you could run it. The actual work is done by the two lines that I have highlighted. Broadly speaking the stuff before these two lines is concerned with setting things up and getting the values in to be processed. The stuff after the two lines is concerned with displaying the answer to the user.


That marks the end of our program. One of the things that you will have noticed is that there is an awful lot of punctuation in there. This is vital and must be supplied exactly as C# wants it, otherwise you will get what is called a compilation error. This simply indicates that the compiler is too stupid to make sense of what you have given it!

You will quickly get used to hunting for and spotting compilation errors. One of the things you will find is that the compiler does not always detect the error where it takes place; consider the effect of missing out a "(" character. However, note that just because the compiler reckons your program is OK is no guarantee of it doing what you want!

Another thing to remember is that the layout of the program does not bother the compiler, the following is just as valid:

using System;class GlazerCalc{static void Main(){double width, height, woodLength, glassArea;string widthString, heightString;widthString = Console.ReadLine();width = double.Parse(widthString);heightString = Console.ReadLine();height = double.Parse(heightString);woodLength = 2 * ( width + height ) * 3.25 ;glassArea = 2 * ( width * height ) ;Console.WriteLine ("The length of the wood is " + woodLength + " feet" ) ;Console.WriteLine("The area of the glass is " + glassArea + " square metres" ) ;}}

...although if anyone writes a program which is laid out this way they will get a smart rap on the knuckles from me!

Variables and Data

In the glazing program above we decided to hold the width and the height of the windows that we are working on in variables that we described as double. Before we can go much further in our programming career we need to consider just what this means, and what other types of data we can store in programs that we write.

Programs operate on data. A programming language must give you a way of storing the data you are processing, otherwise it is useless. What the data actually means is something that you as a programmer decide (see the above digression on data).

A variable is a named location where you can store something. You can think of it as a box of a particular size with a name painted on the box. You chose the name to reflect what is going to be stored there (we used sensible names like woodLength in the above program). You also need to choose the type of the variable (particular size and shape of box) from the range of storage types which C# provides. The type of the variable is part of the metadata about that variable.

Programs also contain literal values. A literal value is just a value in your program which you use for some purpose. For each type of variable the C# language has a way in which literal values of that type are expressed.

Storing numbers

When considering numeric values there are two kinds of data:

In the first case we can hold the value exactly; you always have an exact number of these items, they are integral.

In the second case we can never hold what we are looking at exactly. Even if you measure a piece of string to 100 decimal places it is still not going to give you its exact length - you could always get the value more accurately. These are real. A computer is digital, i.e. it operates entirely on patterns of bits which can be regarded as numbers. Because we know that it works in terms of ons and offs it has problems holding real values. To handle real values the computer actually stores them to a limited accuracy, which we hope is adequate (and usually is).

This means that when we want to store something we have to tell the computer whether it is an integer or a real. We also need to consider the range of possible values that we need to hold so that we can choose the appropriate type to store the data.

You tell C# about a variable you want to create by declaring it. The declaration also identifies the type of the thing we want to store. Think of this as C# creating a box of a particular size, specifically designed to hold items of the given type. The box is tagged with some metadata (there is that word again) so that the system knows what can be put into it and how that box can be used.

Storing integer values

Integers are the easiest type of value for the computer to store. Each value will map onto a particular pattern of bits. The only issue is one of range. The bigger the value the larger the number of bits that you need to represent it.

An example of an integer variable would be something which kept track of the number of sheep in a field:

int numberOfSheep = 0;

This creates a variable which could keep track of over two thousand million sheep! It also sets the initial value to 0. Using int (which can hold negative values) lets a program manipulate "negative sheep" which is probably not meaningful (unless you run a sheep bank of course and let people borrow them). Remember that the language itself is unaware of any such considerations. If you want to make sure that we never have more than 1,000 sheep and the number of sheep never goes negative you must add this behaviour yourself.

Storing real values

"Real" is a generic term for numbers which are not integers. They have a decimal point and a fractional part. Depending on the value the decimal point floats around in the number, hence the name float. C# provides a type of box which can hold a real number. A standard float value has a range of 1.5E-45 to 3.4E48 with a precision of only 7 digits (i.e. not as good as most pocket calculators).

If you want more precision (although of course your programs will use up more computer memory and run more slowly) you can use a double box instead (double is an abbreviation for double precision). This takes up more computer memory but it has a range of 5.0E-324 to 1.7E308 and a precision of 15 digits.

An example of a float variable could be something which held the average price of ice cream:

float averageIceCreamPriceInPence;

An example of a double variable could be something which held the width of the universe in inches:

double univWidthInInches;

Finally, if you want the ultimate in precision but require a slightly smaller range you can use the decimal type. This uses twice the storage space of a double and holds values to a precision of 28-29 digits. It is used in financial calculations where the numbers are not so large but they need to be held to very high accuracy.

decimal robsOverdraft;


All the information from this page is taken from Rob Miles' C# yellow book.