There are two core threads that intertwine in the prehistory of blockchain and cryptocurrency, open-source community-based software development and cryptography. Most important with the latter is public-key crypto. Open source was in part a pre-cursor to peer-to-peer of the 1990s, also it was influential to the cultural prehistory of Bitcoin and subsequent cryptocurrencies.
What are timelines and how are they useful? How might they be more useful and educational? They are generally brief outlines of what happened and when. Most tend to be too short to provide much context unfortunately. Sometimes an audience wants just quick chronology and facts, sometimes more context. As a historian and social scientist, I find the typical, brief, facts only timeline lacking. It misses an opportunity for critical context, which then for many, must then be sought out elsewhere. Some merely want what happened, for others, context is educational, of interest, and useful. Hence, I have designed this timeline as a hybrid to serve both types of users as the factual event or information is in bold, while additional text offers contexts and fuller explanations.
SHARE, Inc. founded as the first computer and software user's group, it is widely recognized as the origin moment of the ideology and practice of sharing code, ideas on coding, and open source. SHARE, Inc. is for IBM mainframe users, initially IBM 701 users in anticipation of the new IBM 704. It meets in 1955 at the RAND Corporation and is heavily aerospace and defense contractors. Importantly, it very quickly grows to all systems of IBM users, aqnd in many verticals from defense, intelligence, insurance, and banking to petroleum, retail, education, and local government. Employees of IBM participate, and are influential, but so are many outside the firm, and the organization is independent in governance from IBM from the start. It established a precedent for other user groups such as Sperry Univac's users' USE, Inc. and Digital Equipment users' DECUS., as well as a model for community software development influential to UNIX, LINUX, the broader Open-Source Movement, and community development generally. Thus, it set a trajectory that applies to the cypherpunks and crypto. The extensive Share, Inc. organizational records are housed at the Charles Babbage Institute.
The origin of conceptualizing and launching a project for UNIX, a deeply influential operating system at the heart of open source. Led by Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie at Bell Labs, it was a partnership of the lab and GE and MIT, and a descendant and playful pun on MIT's 1960s Multics time-sharing operating system.
Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman published “New Directions in Cryptography.” IEEE Transactions on Information Theory. It launched the field of public-key crypto outside the intelligence communities. Unlike symmetrical key, this facilitated crypto communications with no central key authority. This was absolutely fundamental to the timestamping possibility Habor and Stornetta wrote of in 1991, and seminal to blockchain and cryptocurrency and its ideology of decentralization and anonymity.
In 1977 MIT computer scientists Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir, and Leonard Adleman built upon the insights and ideas of Diffie and Hellman to take the next critical step and develop an algorithm, RSA for a public key cryptosystem. They also launched a company, RSA Data Security, that was not well managed early, not until James Bidzos came aboard to lead it. Bidzos started the now famed RSA Data Security Conference. RSA Data Security was an important company that battled NSA, which did not want strong crypto it could not decrypt. Verisign was spun off from RSA and Bidzos served as its chair.
Richard Stallman announces GNU, an open-source operating system project and early ruminations on the notion of free (as in freedom and not central or corporate control) software.
Richard Stallman's ideas solidify, and he founds the influential Free Software Foundation, a pivotal moment in the history of open source and community-based development, forming a movement and a rallying cry.
Finnish computer scientist Linus Torvalds programs a Linux operating system kernel he released to the global open-source community in mid-September 1991. Linux, as the name pays homage to, draws on insights from, and builds upon knowledge with UNIX. Linux is released under GNU license and became the next key focal point (along with UNIX) of the open-source and community development free software model.
Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, two cryptographers at Bellcore—a joint lab of the seven “Baby Bells”—published a seminal article, “How to Time Stamp a Digital Document.” This was absolutely critical to establishing core foundation making blockchain technology possible.
Computer scientist and lawyer Nick Szabo conceptualizes Bit Gold, which anticipated elements and drew on Haber and Stornetta's work on time-stamping digital content. Journalist Nathaniel Popper wrote in the New York Times on May 15, 2015, speculating Szabo is Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin's inventor. Popper's basis being the technical design similarities, Szabo trying to resurrect and partner on Bit Gold shortly prior to the Bitcoin White Paper, writing style analysis, Szabo's mysteriousness and seeming reclusiveness, and his claim there was a redating of Szabo's Bit Gold resurrection request (to a later date to apparently reduce suspicion as Popper saw it, to help conceal. Szabo responded he is flattered but denies he is Satoshi. Cypherpunks like Szabo are all very focused with privacy, so a denial might be a natural course IF he in fact is Satoshi. Taking a Japanese name and one inverting the initials seems possible, and even clever and playful, but who knows. We may never know. Nakamoto last signed post or email was in April 2011 and said he was moving on to other things and probably would cease communication.
Computer scientist and cypherpunk Wei Dai developed a conceptual short paper he shared with colleagues on B-money, which like Bit Gold was an "anonymous, distributed electronic cash system." Both he and the late Hal Finney were at the forefront of such research on digital currency, along with Szabo, but there were a handful of others. Some have claimed to be Satoshi but those investigating are doubtful.
Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym for a person or persons, releases a short White Paper for Bitcoin. It sets the standard for how digital currency projects, ideally a decentralized community endeavor, are brought to the world's attention, especially to miners, investors, analysts, and users, but to anyone who interested, including other coin developers on the Web. In concisely outlining Bitcoin, it offers its all-important and consequential, to cryptocurrency and to the environment, "Proof-of-Work" model.
Bitcoin was launched by Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto continued to communicate and contribute some direction to a small team until early 2011. Transactions of buying and selling of Bitcoin occur, each Bitcoin is trades for less than a penny.
Hal Finney wrote to Satoshi in 2009 that he believed Bitcoin would one day reach $10 million per coin. Finney's intellect and skill was revered by cryptographer peers.
Bitcoin appreciates substantially percentagewise, ranging between far less than a penny and $0.39.
The first know Bitcoin transaction to buy goods or services occured. During the year, near the low end of the price range, when at far less than a penny or pence, early Bitcoin miner Laszlo Hanyecz, in order to prove Bitcoin could be traded for a transaction, successfully convinced someone in the online Bitcoin enthusiast community to phone in an order and pay by credit card for two pizzas to be delivered to him. Hanyecz exchanged 10,000 Bitcoin for the two pizzas. At the end of 2021 that sum of Bitcoin was worth the equivalent of $474 million dollars, over £ 345 million.
In April Satoshi Nakamoto communicated with the Bitcoin community for the last time, at least using that name. His message was to a member of the Bitcoin team, Gavin Andresen. Andresen shared this and other correspondence and posts with journalist Pete Rizzo, who conducted research on Bitcoin. Rizzo would later become Editor of Bitcoin Magazine and 10 years after the day after Satoshi's last (April 26, 2011) email, on April 26, 2021, Rizzo published a retrospective article in Forbes on Satoshi Nakamoto's leadership style, changes, and exit from involvement in Bitcoin. It suggests a single person, not a small group, and that frustration and dissatisfaction with the situation and the response of the broader community (and possibly the CIA's interest as Andresen was giving a talk on Bitcoin to the CIA) led Satoshi to resign and turn ownership and copyright of code to "the developers," or the team. He was not heard from again.
It is more than merely an interesting mystery, or desire to credit an inventor, it also quite telling of the community, the cypherpunks, and their ethos--undoubtedly some people in the world know Nakamoto's identity but are honoring Nakamoto's wishes. It serves as an important origin story and rallying cry to devotion to privacy and right to it and anonymity, which is at the heart of Bitcoin and crypto, anonymous ownership on a public ledger. It is also meaningful with regard to responsibility (the design, the environmental consequences), Satoshi's untouched 1 million Bitcoins, what might lead Nakamoto to sell, the status of these coins, whether Nakamoto is still alive, and other questions.
Russian Canadian Vitalik Buterin and others found Bitcoin Magazine, the first dedicated publication to seriously report on cryptocurrency. Buterin was a university student at the time and devoted about half time to researching and writing articles for the magazine. The founders sold it in 2015, the year that Buterin led a team of eight others to launch cryptocurrency Ethereum. Bitcoin Magazine is now owned by BTC Inc. in Nashville, Tennessee.
Ethereum is founded and launched by leader Vitalik Buterin and seven co-founders, all male (a problem in the crypto space and the subject of a blog post Iam writing on cryptocurrency and gender). Chief among the seven were Charles Hoskinson and Gavin Wood. Ethereum is a decentralized app, or DApp, platform that other coin projects and smart contracts and NFTs build upon and pay Ether, the actual token, fees for the service. Hoskinson would run competing Ethereum Classic, after the $55 million 2016 hack, theft, and disagreement with Buterin on resolutions. This resulted in the hard fork for Ethereum, led by Buterin, and the existing chain becoming Ethereum Classic, run by Hoskinson. In leaving the Ethereum project, Hoskinson also would join Gavin Wood with Cardano, billed by the media as an "Ethereum Killer." It is Proof-of-Stake, in fact the first major coin to implement the model, and scales well. Thus, Cardano addresses the two major challenges of Ethereum. Ethereum is not likely displaced by Cardano or Solana, its base and ecosystem of applications is so much larger than any other coin, DApp platform. Its conversion to Proof of Stake to match Cardano addresses both environmental concerns and scalability. Further, there are Layer Two partners such as Polygon that help Layer One Ethereum with scale and efficiency of transactions.
The Hyperledger Project/Hyperledger Foundation is formed late in the year. It creates infrastructure to support open-source software blockchain efforts. It hosts and supports selected "enterprise-grade" efforts in which solutions and applications are built by the developer community for venders and other end-user organizations. The foundation's staff have project management in LINUX and open-source projects and aid organizational efforts of the projects built for organizations by the open-source community. It further shows the deep intersection of the open-source community and blockchain organizational efforts and technologies.
The Decentralized Autonomous Organization is founded. It was launched with a highly successful crowdfunding campaign. It became the model for other similarly structured organizations and the DAO category emerged, DAOs with a variety of goals. A DAO uses the decentralized and anonymity infrastructure of blockchain and public ledgers to create organizations with a goal, practice, and ideology of decentralized, non-hierarchical governance, keeping members private from others and each other.
Bitcoin rises steeply reaching mover $19,000 per coin in December, an all-time high.
A theft of Ethereum in the tens of millions of dollars led again led to existential threats to the platform and the project but it has survived and thrived since and learned from the episode. It is indicative of even the large projects in the many billions, there are continual risks.
Bitcoin, after rising to over $19,000 in 2017, loses more than 80% of its value, falling to under $4,000 a coin. This was an important moment in Bitcoin's history. Such a fall of over 80% had occurred before, but not when Bitcoin was in the thousands. Would buyers come in, or would it be an accelerating race to get out and it go to $0. Buyers came back to sufficiently stabilize the price above $3,000 and it would set an all-time new high in 2020 and rise again in 2021.
Comments from SEC Chair Gary Gensler as well as Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell both emphasize the need for more clarity and regulation for cryptocurrency but doing so with care so as not to disrupt innovation with blockchain technology, an important field where the U.S. is arguably the leader. A futures exchange traded fund (ETF) is approved by the US Government, but a spot ETF is repeatedly denied approval as many large asset management firms make proposals. Gensler and Powell cite the possibility of market manipulation with a spot product.
The Chinese Government cracks down on enforcing its policy of outlawing Bitcoin and cryptocurrency mining that once was dominated by miners in China. Mining in China moves to extralegal shadows and greatly reduced. Mining, for the first time with regard to volume, begins to spread a bit more evenly throughout many parts of the world.
Ethereum begins transition with the London Hard Fork (a relaunch of sorts, soft forks are compatible changes with past blocks, hard forks are not) to become Proof-of-Stake, which is expected to be completed in 2022. This will make formerly Proof-of-Work and environmentally degrading (though at its worst far less so than Bitcoin) Ethereum green. Like other Proof of Stake coins, projects, and platforms, the small amount of energy used will be more than offset by heavier carbon footprint infrastructure it replaces.
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