So you’ve gotten your head around the idea of digital money. You know the difference between Bitcoin and the blockchain. And maybe you even have some credit in your virtual wallet. But have you ever found yourself asking the question – where do cryptocurrencies come from anyway? Here’s a little crash course:
Bitcoin came out in 2009, but the technology was around many years before that. As the first cryptocurrency, Bitcoin was released as an open source project, right around the time of the financial crisis. The identity of Bitcoin’s creator is still not completely certain, although it’s generally believed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the author of a 2008 white paper describing the cryptocurrency.
Whether or not Nakamoto was the true creator of Bitcoin is somewhat a moot point. For a system to be truly decentralized, with no owners, the creator’s idea was to let the technology evolve and be open to all.
At a time when the financial institutions could no longer be trusted or even accessed, the purpose of cryptocurrency was to bring about a transparent economy. Every individual could manage their own wealth outright. They also had the freedom to make transactions globally, without the intervention or permission of any central authority.
The History of Cryptocurrencies
2009 may have been the year that Bitcoin launched, but the theoretical construct of cryptocurrencies existed long before that. The ideology was the same–that math and computer science could solve problems associated with our traditional fiat currencies.
Few people know this, but it was American cryptographer, David Chaum, who invented the “blinding” algorithm in the 1980s. This is the central algorithm to modern web-based encryption today. It’s thanks to this invention that data can be exchanged between parties securely and without being altered. This paved the way for digital currency exchanges (blinded money).
By the late 1980s, Chaum had mustered a team of supporters for his invention, and founded DigiCash, a for-profit company that mined units of currency based on Chaum’s blinding algorithm. Unlike the decentralized Bitcoin, Chaum had the monopoly on digital cash, making it to all intents and purposes, the same as with financial institutions and fiat currency.
While DigiCash started out dealing direct with individuals, rather than institutions, the Netherland’s Central Bank (where Chaum was now located) banned the idea, forcing DigiCash to sell to licensed banks only.
In what could have been the partnership of the century, Microsoft wanted to team up with DigiCash to allow Windows users in the early days to make digital purchases. The terms were never agreed upon, though, and in the late 1990s, DigiCash went bust.
Cryptocurrencies After DigiCash
There wasn’t a lot of movement in cryptocurrencies after DigiCash. The main focus shifted to electronic financial transactions that were more conventional, but still a breakthrough in convenience and speed. Pioneers, such as PayPal and other similar Alternative Payment Methods (APMs) took up most of the resources and investment.
There were a few DigiCash imitators, such as Russia’s WebMoney, but nothing that really stuck until the late 1990s, when e-gold came out. e-gold wasn’t like DigiCash, in the sense that it was owned by a company that bought gold online. Users sent their old trinkets and jewelry to the e-gold warehouse and received digital currency back. This could be changed for actual gold or US dollars.
e-gold reached millions of active accounts, processing billions of dollars annually. But the company had lax security protocols and was subject to frequent hacking and phishing scams, leaving its users out of pocket. Moreover, the company’s transaction activity fell into the legal spotlight, as its laidback policies made it a tool for money launderers and Ponzi schemes. They finally ceased operations in 2009, by which time, Bitcoin was on the market.
Opening to the public in 2009, supporters quickly began to exchange and mine the currency. By the next year, altcoins began to appear on the market, most notably, Litecoin, and the first public Bitcoin exchanges started to appear as well. By 2012, major merchants began accepting Bitcoin as a legitimate method of payment, including WordPress, Expedia and Microsoft.
Flash forward to 2018, and it’s hard to say if Nakamoto or anyone could have predicted Bitcoin’s meteoric rise. But it would take the powers of Nostradamus to say what place cryptocurrencies will have in our lives in the future.