There is an answer on the site for solving simple linear congruences via so called 'Gauss's Algorithm' presented in a fractional form. Answer was given by Bill Dubuque and it was said that the fractional form is essentially Gauss, Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, Art. 13, 1801.

Now I have studied the article from the book, but I am not seeing the connection to the fractional form. What Gauss does is reducing $b$ via $p\bmod b= p - qb$ and I do not see that happening in the fractional form nor do I see how it computes an inverse. I have already talked with Bill about this via comments, but decided to open a new question so he or anyone else can help me more intuitively understand what is going on here. This article is supposed to give an algorithm to compute inverses in a prime modulus, yet I have no idea how.


Actual question for Bill:

I may have been asking some stupid questions up till now so I will give something concrete and hopefully you can provide an answer to that.

Let's take your sci.math example for this:

So we are looking for a multiplicative inverse $x$ of $60$ in modulo $103$

$$60x \equiv 1 \pmod{103}$$

The tool we can use for this is, as Bill has said, a special case of the Euclidean algorithm which iterates $(p\bmod b,\, p)$ instead of the usual Euclidean algorithm that iterates $(p \bmod b,\, b)$.

This is the result of that algorithm:

$$103=60 \cdot \color{#c00} 1 + 43 = 43 \cdot \color{#c00}2 + 17 = 17 \cdot \color{#c00} 6 + 1$$

And then this translates into the following in mod $103$: $$60 \cdot \color{#c00}{(-1)} \equiv 43 \rightarrow 43 \cdot \color{#c00}{(-2)} \equiv 17 \rightarrow 17 \cdot \color{#c00}{(-6)} \equiv 1$$

Producing the numbers in red which when multiplied give an inverse:

$$60 \cdot \color{#c00}{(-1)(-2)(-6)} \equiv 1 \pmod{103}$$ $$x \equiv-12 \pmod{103}$$

And this is fine and I see it works, of course only when the number and modulo are coprime.

Now my question is why this works. I am not interested in optimisations and different ways of reaching the inverse, but specifically why do the same values of the numbers in red(the coefficients of the algorithm descent) produce an inverse? This method of reusing the coefficients does not work via the normal Euclidean algorithm, but only with this special case. What is special about this? I would like to see a generalized proof or reason as to why the generated numbers produced via this special algorithm have this property.

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    $\begingroup$ I will answer later when I have more spare time. Others who may be interested in answering can learn the detailed context from the "via comments" link above. $\endgroup$ Jan 2, 2019 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque I have edited the question to give you specifically the problem I am having with this. Hopefully you will be able to give an answer now. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2019 at 12:21
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure precisely where you are stuck, but maybe placing the various forms side-by-side will prove illuminating - see my answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2019 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ Are you asking about how congruences like the $\rm\color{#0a0}{green}$ congruence in my answer follow from the corresponding $\rm\color{#0a0}{green}$ equation in the iterated mods preceding it? Or are you asking how the congruence in the final line follows from all before it? $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2019 at 2:38
  • $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque Well I am asking both really. Why do the coefficients ${1, 2, 6}$ generated from the initial descent algorithm produce an inverse when multiplied mod $103$? I understand all the other optimizations work simply because of multiplication property of congruences. You keep picking numbers to multiply with as long as it will produce a lesser number mod $n$. But here you don't pick, you generate them with the algorithm first. $p - \color{red}{q_1}b_1 \rightarrow p - \color{red}{q_2}b_2...$ $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2019 at 5:55

2 Answers 2


Below we compare the related forms. First is the iterated descent $\,a\to 103\bmod a\,$ used by Gauss. Second is that rearranged into the form of descending multiples of $60.\,$ Third is the fractional view, and fourth is the graph of the descending multiples of $60$ (denominator descent graph).

$$\begin{align} 103\bmod{60} &= 103 - 1(60) = 43\\ 103\bmod 43 &= 103\color{#0a0}{-2(43)=17}\\ 103\bmod 17 &= 103-6(17) = 1 \end{align}\qquad\qquad\quad$$

$$\begin{array}{rl} \bmod{103}\!:\qquad\ (-1)60\!\!\!\! &\equiv\, 43 &\Rightarrow\ 1/60\equiv -1/43\\[.3em] \smash[t]{\overset{\large\color{#0a0}{*(-2)}}\Longrightarrow}\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ (-2)(-1)60\!\!\!\! &\equiv \color{#0a0}{(-2)43\equiv 17}\!\! &\Rightarrow\ 1/60\equiv\ \ \ 2/17\\[.3em] \smash[t]{\overset{\large *(-6)}\Longrightarrow}\ \ \color{#c00}{(-6)(-2)(-1)}60\!\!\!\! &\equiv (-6)17\equiv 1 &\Rightarrow\ 1/60 \equiv {\color{#c00}{-12}}/1\\ \end{array}$$

$$ \begin{align} &\dfrac{1}{60}\ \,\equiv\ \ \dfrac{-1}{43}\, \ \equiv\, \ \dfrac{2}{17}\, \equiv\, \dfrac{\color{#c00}{-12}}1\ \ \ \rm[Gauss's\ algorithm]\\[.3em] &\, 60\overset{\large *(-1)}\longrightarrow\color{#0a0}{43}\overset{\large\color{#0a0}{*(-2)}}\longrightarrow\,\color{#0a0}{17}\overset{\large *(-6)}\longrightarrow 1\\[.4em] \Rightarrow\ \ &\,60*(-1)\color{#0a0}{*(-2)}*(-6)\equiv 1\ \Rightarrow\ 60^{-1}\rlap{\equiv (-1)(-2)(-6)\equiv \color{#c00}{-12}} \end{align}$$

The translation from the first form (iterated mods) to the second (iterated smaller multiples) is realized by viewing the modular reductions as modular multiplications, e.g.

$$\ 103\color{#0a0}{-2(43) = 17}\,\Rightarrow\, \color{#0a0}{-2(43) \equiv 17}\!\!\pmod{\!103} $$

This leads to the following simple recursive algorithm for computing inverses $\!\bmod p\,$ prime.

$\begin{align}\rm I(a,p)\ :=\ &\rm if\ \ a = 1\ \ then\ \ 1\qquad\qquad\ \ \ ; \ \ a^{-1}\bmod p,\,\ {\rm for}\ \ a,p\in\Bbb N\,\ \ \&\,\ \ 0 < a < p\ prime \\[.5em] &\rm else\ let\ [\,q,\,r\,]\, =\, p \div a\qquad ;\, \ \ p = q a + r\ \Rightarrow \color{#0a0}{-qa\,\equiv\, r}\!\!\pmod{\!p},\ \ 0 < r < a\,\\[.2em] &\rm\ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ \ ({-}q*I(r,p))\bmod p\ \ \ ;\ \ because\ \ \ \dfrac{1}a \equiv \dfrac{-q}{\color{#0a0}{-qa}}\equiv \dfrac{-q}{\color{#0a0}r}\equiv -q * I(r,p)\ \ \ \ \ \color{#90f}{[\![1]\!]} \end{align} $

Theorem $\ \ {\rm I(a,p)} = a^{-1}\bmod p$

Proof $\ $ Clear if $\,a = 1.\,$ For $\,a > 1,\,$ suppose for induction the theorem holds true for all $\,n < a$. Since $\,p = qa+r\,$ we must have $\,r > 0\,$ (else $\,r = 0\,\Rightarrow\,a\mid p\,$ and $\,1< a < p,\,$ contra $\,p\,$ prime). Thus $\,0 < r < a\,$ so induction $\,\Rightarrow\,{\rm I(r,p)}\equiv \color{#0a0}{r^{-1}}$ so reducing equation $\color{#90f}{[\![1]\!]}\bmod p\,$ yields the claim.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the edit. Now I have a full picture of this. So the only important fact about the algorithm is that eventually it will reach $1$. Once we have the equational forms we can rearrange each of them into mod $103$ like so: $$103 - 1(60) = 43 \rightarrow -60 + 1(103) = 43 \rightarrow -60 \equiv 43$$ From here on we just use the next steps of the algorithm to write the congruences in terms of $60$ and it is true because of the $a \equiv b$ (mod $n$) $\rightarrow ka \equiv kb$ (mod $n$) property. Is that about right? $\endgroup$ Mar 4, 2019 at 10:20
  • $\begingroup$ Also this normal method (where there is no allowing of +/- multipliers/remainders) works only when the modulus is prime like the example here. But since an inverse exists when the numbers are coprime then a prime modulo is not always required if we allow +/- multipliers/remainders like in your post. For example inverse of $4$ modulo $15$. $$15 - 3(4) = 3$$ $$15 - 3(5) = 0$$ It does not terminate at $1$ because $15$ is not prime. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2019 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ But when we allow the above mentioned quicker method then it sometimes works. $$15 - 4(4) = -1$$ Multiply both sides by $-1$ and then $$-15 + 4(4) = 1$$ Is this correct and are we allowed to multiply the intermediary steps like so? So is this also called 'Gauss algorithm' or only when we restrict positive remainders? $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2019 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Michael Yes, it may fail for composite moduli, but then we can use the general extended Eucldiean algorithm, which also can be viewed in fractional form. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2019 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ And multiplying the equation as I have done is ok to do? It should still be the same mod $15$? I suppose that is what you did in quicker method. $\endgroup$ Mar 11, 2019 at 17:41

I'm not sure I've properly understood what you're looking for, but since the reason why the algorithm works seems to me to be patently clear from the formal proof that it does, in fact, work, here's such a proof for the general case.

Starting with a prime $\ p\ $, and an integer $\ b_0\in \left[1, p\right]\ $, the algorithm successively produces integers $\ b_1<b_0,b_2<b_1, \dots, b_{i+1} < b_i, \dots\ $, with $\ b_{i+1} \equiv -q_i\ b_i\ \left(\,\mathrm{mod }\ p\,\right)\ $, until it obtains $\ b_n = 1\ $. As long as $\ b_i \not\in\left\{0, 1\right\}\ $, it's always possible to carry out the next step of the procedure by using the division algorithm: $\ p = q_i\,b_i + b_{i+1}\ $, and since the sequence $\ b_0, b_1, \dots\ b_i, \dots $ is strictly decreasing, the algorithm must eventually terminate with $\ b_n\in\left\{0, 1\right\}\ $. If $\ b_n\ $ were $\ 0\ $, however, the final step of the algorithm would have been $\ p = q_{n-1}\,b_{n-1} + b_n = q_{n-1}\,b_{n-1}\ $, whence $\ b_{n-1}\ $, strictly smaller than the prime $\ p\ $, would be a divisor of it, and hence equal to $\ 1\ $. Thus, the algorithm would have terminated on the preceeding step.

Thus the algorithm always terminates with $\ b_n=1\ $, and we then have \begin{eqnarray} 1&\equiv& -q_{n-1}\,b_{n-1}\equiv q_{n-1}\,q_{n-2}\,b_{n-2}\equiv\dots\\ &\equiv& \left(-1\right)^n\,q_{n-1}\,q_{n-2}\dots q_0\,b_0\ \left(\,\mathrm{mod}\,p\,\right)\ \end{eqnarray}.

  • $\begingroup$ Do you think that my last comment on Bill's answer generally sums up the algorithm? $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2019 at 19:11
  • $\begingroup$ It looks ok to me, although I wouldn't say that the algorithm's eventually reaching $\ 1\ $ is the only important fact about it. There's also the fact that the number you calculate at each stage is just a non-zero multiple $\ \mathrm{mod}\ p\ $ of the previous one. If it were a more complicated polynomial function of the previous number, with a non-zero constant term, for instance, the algorithm wouldn't work. $\endgroup$ Mar 7, 2019 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ Well, yes. But the thing with rearranging and the property are fine though? $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2019 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ Sure. $\ \ \ \ \ $ $\endgroup$ Mar 8, 2019 at 9:08
  • $\begingroup$ Did you take a look at Gauss article that is linked in the question? The answer that Bill provided here is related to that article, but do you think that this answer, also shown by Bill, math.stackexchange.com/questions/174676/… is related to that article? $\endgroup$ Sep 11, 2020 at 9:18

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