You heard about this bitcoin thing. We’re guessing: yes, you have. The first and most famous digital cryptocurrency has been racking up headlines due to a breathtaking rise in value — cracking the $1,000 threshold for the first time on Jan. 1, 2017,of that year and then during the first part of 2018.
But the Bitcoin story has so much more to it than just headline-grabbing pricing swings. It incorporates technology, currency, math, economics and social dynamics. It’s multifaceted, highly technical and still very much evolving. This explainer is meant to clarify some of the fundamental concepts and provide answers to some basic bitcoin questions.
But first: A quick backstory
Bitcoin was invented in 2009 by a person (or group) who called himself Satoshi Nakamoto. His stated goal was to create “a new electronic cash system” that was “completely decentralized with no server or central authority.” After cultivating the concept and technology, in 2011, Nakamoto turned over the source code and domains to others in the bitcoin community, and subsequently vanished. (Check out the New Yorker’s great profile of Nakamoto from 2011.)
What is bitcoin?
Simply put, bitcoin is a digital currency. No bills to print or coins to mint. It’s decentralized — there’s no government, institution (like a bank) or other authority that controls it. Owners are anonymous; instead of using names, tax IDs, or social security numbers, bitcoin connects buyers and sellers through encryption keys. And it isn’t issued from the top down like traditional currency; rather, bitcoin is “mined” by powerful computers connected to the internet.
How does one ‘mine’ bitcoin?
A person (or group, or company) mines bitcoin by doing a combination of advanced math and record-keeping. Here’s how it works. When someone sends a bitcoin to someone else, the network records that transaction, and all of the others made over a certain period of time, in a “block.” Computers running special software — the “miners” — inscribe these transactions in a gigantic digital ledger. These blocks are known, collectively, as the “blockchain” —of all the transactions that have ever been made.