Recall that the greatest common divisor (GCD) of two integers A and B is the largest integer that divides both A and B.

The Euclidean algorithm is a technique for quickly finding the GCD of two integers.

The algorithm

The Euclidean algorithm for finding GCD(A,B) is as follows:

  • If A = 0, then GCD(A,B)=B since the GCD(0,B)=B, and we can stop.  
  • If B = 0, then GCD(A,B)=A since the GCD(A,0)=A, and we can stop.  
  • Write A in quotient remainder formA = B⋅Q + R.
  • Find GCD(B,R) using the Euclidean algorithm since GCD(A,B) = GCD(B,R).

Example

Find the GCD of 270 and 192.

  • A=270, B=192
  • A ≠ 0
  • B ≠ 0
  • Use long division to find that 270/192 = 1 with a remainder of 78. We can write this as 270 = 192 * 1 +78.
  • Find GCD(192,78)since GCD(270,192)=GCD(192,78).


A=192, B=78

  • A ≠0
  • B ≠0
  • Use long division to find that 192/78 = 2 with a remainder of 36. We can write this as 192 = 78 * 2 + 36.
  • Find GCD(78,36) since GCD(192,78)=GCD(78,36).

A=78, B=36

  • A ≠0
  • B ≠0
  • Use long division to find that 78/36 = 2 with a remainder of 6. We can write this as 78 = 36 * 2 + 6.
  • Find GCD(36,6) since GCD(78,36)=GCD(36,6).

A=36, B=6

  • A ≠0
  • B ≠0
  • Use long division to find that 36/6 = 6 with a remainder of 0. We can write this as 36 = 6 * 6 + 0.
  • Find GCD(6,0) since GCD(36,6)=GCD(6,0).

A=6, B=0

  • A ≠0
  • B =0, GCD(6,0)=6

So we have shown

GCD(270,192) = GCD(192,78) = GCD(78,36) = GCD(36,6) = GCD(6,0) = 6 GCD(270,192) = 6

 

Understanding the Euclidean algorithm

 

If we examine the Euclidean algorithm, we can see that it makes use of the following properties:

  • GCD(A,0) = A
  • GCD(0,B) = B
  • If A = B⋅Q + R and B≠0, then GCD(A,B) = GCD(B,R) where Q is an integer and R is an integer between 0 and B-1.

The first two properties let us find the GCD if either number is zero. The third property lets us take a larger, more difficult-to-solve problem and reduce it to a smaller, easier-to-solve problem.

The Euclidean algorithm makes use of these properties by rapidly reducing the problem into easier and easier problemsusing the third propertyuntil it is easily solved by using one of the first two properties.

We can understand why these properties work by proving them.

We can prove that GCD(A,0)=A is as follows:

  • The largest integer that can evenly divide A is A.
  • All integers evenly divide 0 since for any integer, C , we can write C ⋅ 0 = 0. So we can conclude that A must evenly divide 0.
  • The greatest number that divides both A and 0 is A.

The proof for GCD(0,B)=B is similar—same proof, but we replace A with B.

To prove that GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,R), we first need to show that GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,A-B).

Suppose we have three integers A,B and C such that A-B=C.

Proof that the GCD(A,B) evenly divides C

The GCD(A,B), by definition, evenly divides A. As a result, A must be some multiple of GCD(A,B). In other words, X⋅GCD(A,B)=A where X is some integer.

The GCD(A,B), by definition, evenly divides B. As a result, B must be some multiple of GCD(A,B). In other words, Y⋅GCD(A,B)=B where Y is some integer.

A-B=C gives us

  • X⋅GCD(A,B) - Y⋅GCD(A,B) = C
  • (X - Y)⋅GCD(A,B) = C

So, we can see that GCD(A,B) evenly divides C.

An illustration of this proof is shown in the left portion of the figure below:

Proof that the GCD(B,C) evenly divides  A

The GCD(B,C), by definition, evenly divides B. As a result, B must be some multiple of GCD(B,C). In other words, M⋅GCD(B,C)=B where M is some integer.

The GCD(B,C), by definition, evenly divides C. As a result, C must be some multiple of GCD(B,C). In other words, N⋅GCD(B,C)=C where N is some integer.

A-B=C gives us

  • B+C=A
  • M⋅GCD(B,C) + N⋅GCD(B,C) = A
  • (M + N)⋅GCD(B,C) = A

So, we can see that GCD(B,C) evenly divides A.

An illustration of this proof is shown in the figure below:

Proof that GCD(A,B)=GCD(A,A-B)

  • GCD(A,B), by definition, evenly divides B.
  • We proved that GCD(A,B) evenly divides C.
  • Since the GCD(A,B) divides both B and C evenly, it is a common divisor of B and C.

GCD(A,B) must be less than or equal to GCD(B,C) because GCD(B,C) is the “greatest” common divisor of B and C.

  • GCD(B,C), by definition, evenly divides B.
  • We proved that GCD(B,C) evenly divides A.
  • Since the GCD(B,C) divides both A and B evenly, it is a common divisor of A and B.

GCD(B,C) must be less than or equal to GCD(A,B) because GCD(A,B) is the “greatest” common divisor of A and B.

Given that GCD(A,B)≤GCD(B,C) and GCD(B,C)≤GCD(A,B), we can conclude that

GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,C).

Which is equivalent to GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,A-B).

An illustration of this proof is shown in the right portion of the figure below:

Proof that GCD(A,B) = GCD(B,R)

We proved that GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,A-B).

The order of the terms does not matter, so we can say GCD(A,B)=GCD(A-B,B).

We can repeatedly apply GCD(A,B)=GCD(A-B,B) to obtain GCD(A,B)=GCD(A-B,B)=GCD(A-2B,B)=GCD(A-3B,B)=...=GCD(A-Q⋅B,B).

But A= B⋅Q + R, so A-Q⋅B=R.

Thus, GCD(A,B)=GCD(R,B).

The order of terms does not matter, so GCD(A,B)=GCD(B,R).

In the next article, we will show how to extend the Euclidean algorithm to find modular inverses.