Please note that I did not compile this article personally. It was gathered back in the days when BBSs were still the Internet. I do not agree with everything said here but it at least gives an alternative perspective on RS232 and it's use.
The following information is intended to collect together in one place, and explain in relatively simple terms, enough of the details of the RS-232 standard to allow a technician to construct and/or debug interfaces between any two "RS-232 Compatible" devices. A more detailed coverage of the subject may be found in the book "Technical Aspects of Data Communication" by John E. McNamara (1977, Digital Press).
This guide is necessary due to the casual way that vendors implement "RS-232" interfaces, sometimes omitting required signals, requiring optional ones, or worse, implementing signals incorrectly. Due to this, and a lack of readily available information about the real EIA standard, there is often considerable confusion involved in trying to interface two RS-232 devices.
RS-232-C is the most recent version of the EIA (Electronics Industry Association) standard for low speed serial data communication. It defines a number of parameters concerning voltage levels, loading characteristics and timing relationships. The actual connectors which are almost universally used (DB-25P and DB-25S, sometimes called "EIA connectors") are recommended, but not mandatory. Typical practice requires mounting the female (DB-25S) connector on the chassis of communication equipment, and male (DB-25P) connectors on the cable connecting two such devices.
There are two main classes of RS-232 devices, namely DTE (Data Terminal Equipment), such as terminals, and DCE (Data Communication Equipment), such as modems. Typically, one only interfaces DTE to a DCE, as opposed to one DTE to another DTE, or one DCE to another DCE, although there are ways to do the later two by building non-standard cables. Rarely if ever are more than two devices involved in a given interface (multidrop is not supported). A serial port on a computer may be implemented as either DTE or DCE, depending on what type of device it is intended to support.
RS-232 is intended for relatively short (50 feet or less), relatively low speed (19,200 bits per second or less) serial (as opposed to parallel) communications. Both asynchronous and synchronous serial encoding are supported. As 'digital' signals (switched D.C. voltage, such as square waves) are used, as opposed to 'analog' signals (continuously varying voltage, such as sine waves) a very wide bandwidth channel (such as direct wire) is required. A limited bandwidth channel (such as a phone circuit) would cause severe and unacceptable distortion and consequent loss of information.
RS-232 will support simplex, half-duplex, or full-duplex type channels. In a simplex channel, data will only ever be travelling in one direction, e.g. from DCE to DTE. An example might be a 'Receive Only' printer. In a half-duplex channel, data may travel in either direction, but at any given time data will only be travelling in one direction, and the line must be 'turned around' before data can travel in the other direction. An example might be a Bell 201 style modem. In full-duplex channel, data may travel in both directions simultaneously. An example might be a Bell 103 style modem. Certain of the RS-232 'hand-shaking' lines are used to resolve problems associated with these modes, such as which direction data may travel at any given instant.
If one of the devices involved in an RS-232 interface is a real modem (especially a half-duplex modem), the 'hand-shaking' lines must be supported, and the timing relationships between them are quite important. These lines are typically much easier to deal with if no modems are involved. In certain cases, these lines may be used to allow one device (which is receiving data at a higher rate than it is capable of processing indefinitely) to cause the other device to pause while the first one 'catches up'. This use of the hand-shaking lines was not really intended by the designers of the RS-232 standard, but it is a useful by-product of the way such interfaces are typically implemented.
Much of the RS-232 standard is concerned with support of 'modems'. These are devices which can convert a serial digital data signal into an analog signal compatible with a narrow bandwidth (e.g. 3 kHz) channel such as a switched telephone circuit, and back into serial digital data on the other end. The first process is called 'MOdulation', and the second process is called 'DEModulation', hence the term 'MODEM'. The actual process used (at data rates of up to 1200 bits per second) is FSK (Frequency Shift Keying), in which a constant frequency sine wave (called the 'carrier') is shifted to a slightly higher or slightly lower frequency to represent a logic 0 or logic 1, respectively. In a half duplex modem, the entire available bandwidth is used for one direction. In a full duplex modem, the available bandwidth is divided into two sub-bands, hence there is both an 'originate carrier' (e.g. for data from the terminal to the computer), and an 'answer carrier' (e.g. for data from the computer to the terminal). The actual frequencies (in Hertz) used on the Bell 103A full duplex modem are:
signal state Originate Answer
logic 0 SPACE 1180 1850 carrier 1080 1750 logic 1 MARK 980 1650
THE STANDARD CIRCUITS AND THEIR DEFINITIONS
For the purposes of the RS-232 standard, a 'circuit' is defined to be a continuous wire from one device to the other. There are 25 circuits in the full specification, less than half of which are at all likely to be found in a given interface. In the simplest case, a full-duplex interface may be implemented with as few as 3 circuits. There is a certain amount of confusion associated with the names of these circuits, partly because there are three different naming conventions (common name, EIA circuit name, and CCITT circuit name). The table below lists all three names, along with the circuit number (which is also the connector pin with which that circuit is normally associated on both ends). Note that the signal names are from the viewpoint of the DTE (e.g. Transmit Data is data being sent by the DTE, but received by the DCE).
In the above, the character following the pin number means:
* rarely used
also, the direction of the arrow indicates which end (DTE or DCE) originates each signal, except for the ground lines (---). For example, circuit 2 (TD) is originated by the DTE, and received by the DCE. Certain of the above circuits (11, 14, 16, and 18) are used only (or in a different way) by Bell 208A modems.
A secondary channel is sometimes used to provide a very slow (5 to 10 bits per second) path for return information (such as ACK or NAK characters) on a primarily half duplex channel. If the modem used supports this feature, it is possible for the receiver to accept or reject a message without having to 'turn the line around', a process that usally takes 100 to 200 milliseconds.
On the above circuits, all voltages are with respect to the Signal Ground (SG) line. The following conventions are used:
Voltage Signal Logic Control +3 to +25 SPACE 0 On -3 to -25 MARK 1 Off
Note that the voltage values are inverted from the logic values (e.g. the more positive logic value corresponds to the more negative voltage). Note also that a logic 0 corresponds to the signal name being 'true' (e.g. if the DTR line is at logic 0, that is, in the +3 to +25 voltage range, then the Data Terminal IS Ready).
ELECTRICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF EACH CIRCUIT __________________________________________
The following criteria apply to the electrical characteristics of each of the above lines:
Note that two widely available integrated circuit chips (1488 and 1489) implement TTL to RS232 drivers (4 per chip), and RS232 receivers to TTL (also 4 per chip), in a manner consistent with all of the above rules.
DEFINITION OF THE MOST COMMON CIRCUITS
1 CG Chassis Ground
This circuit (also called Frame Ground) is a mechanism to insure that the chassis of the two devices are at the same potential, to prevent electrical shock to the operator. Note that this circuit is not used as the reference for any of the other voltages. This circuit is optional. If it is used, care should be taken to not set up ground loops.
2 TD Transmit Data
This circuit is the path whereby serial data is sent from the DTE to the DCE. This circuit must be present if data is to travel in that direction at any time.
3 RD Receive Data
This circuit is the path whereby serial data is sent from the DCE to the DTE. This circuit must be present if data is to travel in that direction at any time.
4 RTS Request To Send
This circuit is the signal that indicates that the DTE wishes to send data to the DCE (note that no such line is available for the opposite direction, hence the DTE must always be ready to accept data). In normal operation, the RTS line will be OFF (logic 1 / MARK). Once the DTE has data to send, and has determined that the channel is not busy, it will set RTS to ON (logic 0 / SPACE), and await an ON condition on CTS from the DCE, at which time it may then begin sending. Once the DTE is through sending, it will reset RTS to OFF (logic 1 / MARK). On a full-duplex or simplex channel, this signal may be set to ON once at initialisation and left in that state. Note that some DCEs must have an incoming RTS in order to transmit (although this is not strictly according to the standard). In this case, this signal must either be brought across from the DTE, or provided by a wraparound (e.g. from DSR) locally at the DCE end of the cable.
5 CTS Clear To Send
This circuit is the signal that indicates that the DCE is ready to accept data from the DTE. In normal operation, the CTS line will be in the OFF state. When the DTE asserts RTS, the DCE will do whatever is necessary to allow data to be sent (e.g. a modem would raise carrier, and wait until it stabilized). At this time, the DCE would set CTS to the ON state, which would then allow the DTE to send data. When the RTS from the DTE returns to the OFF state, the DCE releases the channel (e.g. a modem would drop carrier), and then set CTS back to the OFF state. Note that a typical DTE must have an incoming CTS before it can transmit. This signal must either be brought over from the DCE, or provided by a wraparound (e.g. from DTR) locally at the DTE end of the cable.
6 DSR Data Set Ready
This circuit is the signal that informs the DTE that the DCE is alive and well. It is normally set to the ON state by the DCE upon power-up and left there. Note that a typical DTE must have an incoming DSR in order to function normally. This line must either be brought over from the DCE, or provided by a wraparound (e.g. from DTR) locally at the DTE end of the cable. On the DCE end of the interface, this signal is almost always present, and may be wrapped back around (to DTR and/or RTS) to satisfy required signals whose normal function is not required.
7 SG Signal Ground
This circuit is the ground to which all other voltages are relative. It must be present in any RS-232 interface.
8 DCD Data Carrier Detect
This circuit is the signal whereby the DCE informs the DTE that it has an incoming carrier. It may be used by the DTE to determine if the channel is idle, so that the DTE can request it with RTS. Note that some DTEs must have an incoming DCD before they will operate. In this case, this signal must either be brought over from the DCE, or provided locally by a wraparound (e.g. from DTR) locally at the DTE end of the cable.
15 TC Transmit Clock
This circuit provides the clock for the transmitter section of a synchronous DTE. It may or may not be running at the same rate as the receiver clock. This circuit must be present on synchronous interfaces.
17 RC Receiver Clock
This circuit provides the clock for the receiver section of a synchronous DTE. It may of may not be running at the same rate as the transmitter clock. Note that both TC and RC are sourced by the DCE. This circuit must be present on synchronous interfaces.
20 DTR Data Terminal Ready
This circuit provides the signal that informs the DCE that the DTE is alive and well. It is normally set to the ON state by the DTE at power-up and left there. Note that a typical DCE must have an incoming DTR before it will function normally. This signal must either be brought over from the DTE, or provided by a wraparound (e.g. from DSR) locally at the DCE end of the cable. On the DTE side of the interface, this signal is almost always present, and may be wrapped back around to other circuits (e.g. DSR, CTS and/or DCD) to satisfy required hand-shaking signals if their normal function is not required.
Note that in an asynchronous channel, both ends provide their own internal timing, which (as long as they are within 5% of each other) is sufficient for them to agree when the bits occur within single character. In this case, no timing information need be sent over the interface between the two devices. In a synchronous channel, however, both ends must agree when the bits occur over possibly thousands of characters. In this case, both devices must use the same clocks. Note that the transmitter and receiver may be running at different rates. Note also that both clocks are provided by the DCE. When one has a synchronous terminal tied into a synchronous port on computer via two synchronous modems, for example, and the terminal is transmitting, the terminal's modem supplies the Transmit Clock, which is brought directly out to the terminal at its end, and encodes the clock with the data, sends it to the computer's modem, which recovers the clock and brings it out as the Receive Clock to the computer. When the computer is transmitting, the same thing happens in the other direction. Hence, whichever modem is transmitting must supply the clock for that direction, but on each end, the DCE device supplies both clocks to the DTE device.
All of the above applies to interfacing a DTE device to a DCE device. In order to interface two DTE devices, it is usually sufficient to provide a 'flipped' cable, in which the pairs (TD, RD), (RTS,CTS) and (DTR,DSR) have been flipped. Hence, the TD of one DTE is connected to the RD of the other DTE, and vice versa. It may be necessary to wrap various of the hand-shaking lines back around from the DTR on each end in order to have both ends work. In a similar manner, two DCE devices can be interfaced to each other.
An RS-232 'break-out box' is particularly useful in solving interfacing problems. This is a device which is inserted between the DTE and DCE. Firstly, it allows you to monitor the state of the various hand-shaking lines (light on = signal ON / logic 0), and watch the serial data flicker on TD and/or RD. Secondly, it allows you to break the connection on one or more of the lines (with dip-switches), and make any kind of cross-connections and/or wraparounds (with jumper wires). Using this, it is fairly easy to determine which line(s) are not functioning as required, and quickly build a prototype of cable that will serve to interface the two devices. At this point, the break-out box can be removed and a real cable built that performs the same function. An example of this kind of device is the International Data Sciences, Inc. Model 60 'Modem and Terminal Interface Pocket Analyzer' (also called a 'bluebox'). Care should be taken with this type of device to connect the correct end of it to the DTE device, or the lights and switches do not correspond to the actual signals.