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Deep Dive Into How Signals Work In SolidJS

SolidJS and Qwik have shown the world the power of signals, and Angular is following suit. There’s no way around them, so let's see what they are, why one would use them, and how they work.

Signal basics

Signals are built using the observer pattern. In this pattern, a subject holds a list of observers who are subscribed to changes to the subject. Whenever the subject gets changed, all subscribers will receive a notification of the update. Typically through a registered callback method. Observers may push new changes to that subject or other subjects. Triggering another set of updates throughout the observers.

From the above, you might have guessed that infinite loops are a big caveat with using the observer pattern. The same holds true for signals.

The power of this pattern lies in the separation of concerns. Observers need to know little about the subject, except that it can change. Whichever actor is going to change the subject needs to know nothing about the observers. This makes it easy to build standalone services that know only about their domain.

Signals in front-end frameworks

SolidJS brings the observer pattern to the table for front-end frameworks through signals. Observers can be added to a signal through SolidJS’s concept of Effects (by using createEffect).

Components within SolidJS can be seen as both an observer and a subject at the same time. The component subscribes to all signals that are used to render the components HTML. SolidJS’s rendering system, in turn, is subscribed to all components.

Where the components act as subjects and SolidJS as an observer. So whenever a signal changes in a component, the component reacts by changing its output, which then triggers SolidJS to put the new output on the screen.

Compare this to, for example, Vue or React. When a change to the state occurs, the new values are passed down the component hierarchy. Each component returns its new output, which can be either the same as the previous render or changed. The framework then compares this tree against what it already had, and determines which parts to update.

This is more dependent on a single source of truth which needs to know about all the components in the system. Changes are loosely related to each other, and only by diffing the results can the next step be determined. This differs from SolidJS setup, which makes hard connections between changes and results, making what will get updated when a signal changes more straightforward.

Writing our own Signals

At first sight, signals seem magical, and one might be inclined to believe there are some compiler tricks going on. Yet it is all plain JavaScript, and in this article, we’ll demystify signals in order to use them to their full potential. We can create our own signals with pure JavaScript in less than 25 lines.

Our simple version will not take objects or arrays as values as these are references in JavaScript and require special attention.

Let's start with the interface. We want the signal creator, which is a function that returns a tuple with the first value being the getter and the second value the setter. The function accepts a value, which will be used as the initial value.

This gives us:

function createSignal(initialValue) {
  let value = initialValue;
  const getter = () => value;
  const setter = (newValue) => {
	value = newValue;
  return [getter, setter];

const original = 1;
const [count, setCount] = createSignal(original);

console.log('Current count: ', count()); // Expected outcome: “Current count: 1”


console.log('And now it is', count()); // Expected outcome: “And now it is 2”
console.log('The original is the same', original); // Expected outcome: “The original is the same 1”

Note that, due to the fact that we created a new variable within the closure of our createSignal, the variable outside of its scope will not change. original on the last line will still be “1”. For simplicity, we’re going to leave objects and arrays out of the picture as these are references instead of scalar values, and need extra code to do the same thing.

Now that we can read from and write to our signal (a.k.a. subject), we’ll need to add subscribers to it. Whenever the getter is called (i.e., the value is read), we want the originator of the call to be registered as an observer. Then, when the setter is called, we are going to loop over all subscribed observers, and notify them of the new value.

Consider this fully working signal creator. We’re almost there.

function createSignal(initialValue) {
  let value = initialValue;
  const observers = [];
  const getter = (current) => {
	if (current && !observers.includes(current)) {
	return value;
  const setter = (newValue) => {
	value = newValue;
	observers.forEach((fn) => fn());
  return [getter, setter];

This snippet has a downside. It needs the observer to be passed as the argument to the getter. But we don’t want to deal with that. Our interface was to read signal(), and have some sort of magic register the observer for us.

What comes next was an eye-opener for me. I always believed there was some closure trick, or built-in JavaScript function to retrieve parent closures. That would have been a fantastic way to get who called the getter function and register it as an observer. But JavaScript offers nothing to support us in this. Instead, a way more simple trick is used, and it is seemingly used in every major framework. Frameworks, among others, React and SolidJS, store the parent in a global variable.

Because JavaScript is single-threaded, it needs to execute all operations in order. It does a lot under the hood to get stuff like async to work. Clever developers have relied on this single-threaded aspect by writing to a global variable, and reading from it in the next function. This gets a little abstract, so here’s a concrete example to demonstrate this setup.

let current;

function first() {
  console.log(‘we are in first’);
function second() {
  current(); // set to function first before calling function second
  console.log(‘we are in second’);
  current = undefined; // clear it out, we’ve used it and don’t want it to pollute 
function third() {
  if (current === undefined) {
    console.log(‘there is no current’);

current = first;

// Expected output
// we are in first
// we are in second
// there is no current

We do not need to worry about current getting overwritten, as the code will always execute in order. It’s safe to assume that it will have the value we expect it to have when the body of second is executed. Note that we clear the value in the body of first as we don’t want unwanted side-effects by leaving the variable set.

The Fully Working Signal

Let’s add effects to our signals to complete the minimal signal minimal framework. With what we have learned in the previous section, we can create effects by

Registering the effect callback (i.e., the observer) to our global variable current Calling the observer for the first time. This will read all signals it depends upon, therefore adding current to the observer list. Clearing current to prevent registering the observer to signals read in the future.

For this, we remove the current argument from the getter, as this is now globally readable. And we can add the createEffect function.

function createEffect(fn) {
  current = fn;
  current = undefined;

With this setup, we already have a working signal system. We can register effects and write out signals to trigger them.

const [isSuccess, setSuccess] = setSignal(false);
createEffect(() => console.log(‘We have ‘, isSuccess() ? ‘success!: ‘no success yet…’);
// The above line will log “We have no success yet…”

setSuccess(true); // Expected result: We have success!

And there we have it! Working signals in just a couple of lines, no magic, no difficult JavaScript API. All just plain code. You can play around with the fully working example in this StackBlitz project. It has the signal setup as described, plus an example of stores. Run node index.js to see the result.

This simple framework is only focused on showcasing signals. For demonstration purposes, it simply logs to the console. Frameworks like SolidJS have advanced effects and logic to get HTML rendering to work. If you’re interested in learning more about rendering, you can read Mark’s blog on how to create your own custom renderer in SolidJS

Or put your newly learned skills to use in a new SolidJS project created with’s SolidJS and Tailwind starter!

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