The I2C bus physically consists of 2 active wires and a ground connection. The active wires, called SDA and SCL, are both bi-directional.SDA is the serial data line, and SCL is the serial clock line.


Every device hooked up to the bus has its own unique address, no matter whether it is an MCU, LCD driver, memory, or ASIC. Each of these chips can act as a receiver and/or transmitter, depending on the functionality. Obviously, an LCD driver is only a receiver, while a memory or I/O chip can be both transmitter and receiver.

The I2C bus is a multi-master bus. This means that more than one IC capable of initiating a data transfer can be connected to it. The I2C protocol specification states that the IC that initiates a data transfer on the bus is considered the Bus Master. Consequently, at that time, all the other ICs are regarded to be Bus Slaves. As bus masters are generally microcontrollers, let's take a look at a general 'inter-IC chat' on the bus. Lets consider the following setup and assume the MCU wants to send data to one of its slaves (also see here for more information; click here for information on how to receive data from a slave).

First, the MCU will issue a   START  condition. This acts as an 'Attention' signal to all of the connected devices. All ICs on the bus will listen to the bus for incoming data. Next the MCU sends the ADDRESS of the device it wants to access, along with an indication whether the access is a Read or Write operation (Write in our example). Having received the address, all IC's will compare it with their own address. If it doesn't match, they simply wait until the bus is released by the stop condition (see below). If the address matches, however, the chip will produce a response called the ACKNOWLEDGE signal. Once the MCU receives the acknowledge, it can start transmitting or receiving DATA. In our case, the MCU will transmit data. When all is done, the MCU will issue the STOP condition. This is a signal that the bus has been released and that the connected ICs may expect another transmission to start any moment.

We have had several states on the bus in our example: START, ADDRESS, ACKNOWLEDGE, DATA , STOP. These are all unique conditions on the bus. Before we take a closer look at these bus conditions we need to understand a bit about the physical structure and hardware of the bus.

  • START and STOP conditions

Prior to any transaction on the bus, a START condition needs to be issued on the bus. The start condition acts as a signal to all connected IC's that something is about to be transmitted on the bus. As a result, all connected chips will listen to the bus.

After a message has been completed, a STOP condition is sent. This is the signal for all devices on the bus that the bus is available again (idle). If a chip was accessed and has received data during the last transaction, it will now process this information (if not already processed during the reception of the message).Start  The chip issuing the Start condition first pulls the SDA (data) line low, and next pulls the SCL (clock) line low.

Stop  The Bus Master first releases the SCL and then the SDA line.

A few notes about start and stop conditions:

A single message can contain multiple Start conditions. The use of this so-called "repeated start" is common in I2C.
A Stop condition ALWAYS denotes the END of a transmission. Even if it is issued in the middle of a transaction or in the middle of a byte. It is "good behavior" for a chip that, in this case, it disregards the information sent and resumes the "listening state", waiting for a new start condition. In total, this sequence has to be performed 8 times to complete the data byte. Bytes are always transmitted MSB first. The meaning of all bytes being read depends on the slave. There is no such thing as a "universal status register". You need to consult the data sheet of the slave being addressed to know the meaning of each bit in any byte transmitted.

© Vincent Himpe 2016