Analyses

Satoshi Nakamoto and the early years of Bitcoin

The identity of Satoshi Nakamoto is one of the biggest mysteries of this century. Who was Satoshi? How was Bitcoin created? Why did Satoshi leave the project so early? This article goes through the early years of Bitcoin when Satoshi was still involved.

eToro banner

It all started from a mailing list

Satoshi Nakamoto revealed himself to the world on the 31st of October 2008. It is one of the most important dates in Bitcoin’s history. This is when Satoshi sent the famous e-mail to the metzdowd.com mailing list. The title of the e-mail was “Bitcoin P2P e-cash paper”.

Satoshi began his e-mail with the following words:

I’ve been working on a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party. The paper is available at: http://www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

Next, Satoshi described shortly the main features of Bitcoin.

The Bitcoin white paper can be still found from the same URL. Satoshi had registered the domain a few months earlier. He used an anonymity service to cover his identity during the registration process. Whois.com reveals that bitcoin.org is registered on the 18th of August, 2008.

According to Satoshi, he began the development of Bitcoin in 2007. This is what Satoshi wrote on the 17th of November, 2008:

I believe I’ve worked through all those little details over the last year and a half while coding it, and there were a lot of them. The functional details are not covered in the paper, but the sourcecode is coming soon.

Why was this particular channel chosen by Satoshi? It was a popular mailing list in the field of cryptography. The list included all the biggest visionaries and gurus of the field, also known as cypherpunks.

Note, that cyberpunk and cypherpunk are not the same things.

Satoshi’s style of writing

Was Satoshi already an active member on the mailing list with another pseudonym? Is Satoshi one of the world’s best-known cypherpunk gurus? We don’t know for sure. There are some clues, though.

Satoshi wrote dozens of e-mails to the list besides the one announcing Bitcoin. These are archived at the Nakamoto Institute. He also posted 575 messages to the Bitcointalk.org discussion forum.

If you go through Satoshi’s messages, there are two things that stand out.

  1. Satoshi was using mostly British English
  2. Satoshi used two spaces after periods

The first point used to be one of the cornerstones in defining Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity. However, there are new studies made, which overrule this theory. Satoshi also used American English.

There’s even a debate if certain words (optimize vs optimise) are only used in British English or not. There is a grey area there. Here are examples of Satoshi’s messages where he has used two different versions of the word optimization.

I guess recent CPU optimizations must have concentrated on things like I/O and branch prediction. (Source)

Laszlo figured out that enabling some more optimisation increased performance about 20%, so 0.3 hashes 20% faster than 0.2.0, but I assume he used that in his own build. (Source)

The second point can be found in all of Satoshi’s messages. Two spaces after a period is a style that comes from the time of typewriters. It’s also used in the academic world.

typewriter

Does this mean that Satoshi Nakamoto is an academic, who started to produce content before personal computers existed? Typewriters became electric in the 1980s. Personal computers started to get popular in households in the early 1990s.

According to Bitcoin historian Pete Rizzo, Satoshi had a factual, no-nonsense, and technical style of writing. He didn’t fool around and never told jokes.

It is also possible, that Satoshi used two spaces after a period as a distraction. Maybe he wanted to build an image of an academic person.

The mixed-use of British and American English has raised the discussion of the fact that there could be more than one person behind the pseudonym.

The genesis block of Bitcoin

Bitcoin’s birthday is celebrated on the 3rd of January. This is when Satoshi Nakamoto started the Bitcoin blockchain (in 2009) and mined the first block. This is known as the genesis block or block 0. You can view its contents from here.

There are few things you should know about this block. First is the message, which Satoshi included in the raw data of the block. It goes as follows:

The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.

This is a reference to the front page of The Times magazine. (Source).

the times

In 2009, the world was recovering from the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Financial institutions were being bailed out everywhere. This is what the headline is referring to.

The second specialty is the block reward. The 50 bitcoins received from the genesis block are unusable. They were sent to the first-ever address created on the Bitcoin blockchain.

The genesis block, as the first block in existence, cannot be linked to a previous block, which gives it some weird properties. This likely led to Satoshi’s decision to not submit the 50 BTC reward to Bitcoin’s transaction database. (Source)

This doesn’t apply to any other bitcoins in the address, which received the first-ever block rewards. At least in theory. No one has ever used any of the bitcoins in that address. It belongs to Satoshi Nakamoto (presumably).

The weird thing is that genesis address has incoming transactions to this date! Are they sent by analytics companies trying to reveal Satoshi’s identity? Could they be from Bitcoin billionaires, who are saying thank you to Satoshi?

There is also a third special feature related to the genesis block. As you might know already, there are new blocks created every 10 minutes on the Bitcoin blockchain. The second block, however, was created after six days. Some argue that this is a reference to the Genesis creation narrative.

Satoshi, Hal Finney, and Martti Malmi

A note to the reader. We have used this fantastic article by Pete Rizzo as a source to the early years of Bitcoin. You should also check his interview with Peter McCormack.

As mentioned earlier, Bitcoin was born in January 2009. In hindsight, this was an exciting and historical year. Satoshi had created something, that would change the world of finance forever! Banks had controlled money for centuries. Now it was time for a digital revolution!

The reality was something else. Satoshi didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his invention. He wasn’t bombarded with emails by cryptography and game theory professionals. Barely anyone paid attention. One of those who did was Hal Finney.

Finney wrote his famous tweet about one week after the genesis block was mined.

Finney was one of the few people who were interested in Bitcoin after Satoshi’s announcement. He contacted Satoshi Nakamoto already in November 2008. Finney was also the first person to receive a Bitcoin P2P transaction.

Satoshi Nakamoto sent 10 bitcoins to Hal Finney just a few days after the genesis block was mined. You can view the transaction from this link.

One of the early Bitcoin enthusiasts was Finnish. He is Martti Malmi, who used the nickname sirius. This is how Malmi was tweeting in December 2020.

Malmi contacted Satoshi as early as April 2009. He wrote the following message:

I would like to help with Bitcoin if there is anything I can do.

Malmi was building the very first Bitcoin online merchants and helped to set up the famous Bitcointalk forum, which is still running. Malmi stepped out of the Bitcoin development after 2012.

So, there wasn’t much going on in 2009. Pete Rizzo found only a couple of hundred transactions that were not related to mining. You could say that one of the most important financial inventions had been done but nobody paid attention.

The cypherpunk community was also skeptical. These people had witnessed failed digital money attempts since the late 1980s. It wasn’t easy to believe that Satoshi had actually succeeded. Most people still don’t understand the value of Bitcoin.

There was someone who did, though. Satoshi Nakamoto. It’s safe to say that Satoshi knew what he had created. It would be extremely interesting to know what he was thinking in those days. Probably even Satoshi couldn’t imagine how far Bitcoin would go in just ten years.

Gavin Andresen and the Bitcoin community

In 2010, things started to happen. The Bitcoin community grew to thousands (tens of thousands) of members. According to Pete Rizzo, this was the period when the status of Satoshi Nakamoto started to change. Before this point, he was a god-like character who updated the Bitcoin program code alone.

Once the community grew, many started to question Satoshi’s role. His decisions were also debated more frequently. The community was even discussing a possible hard fork. The nickname ShadowOfHarbringer wrote to Bitcointalk.org:

There is no single mastermind in open source. It’s more of a brain where a single human is just a cell. If one day Satoshi says, ‘OK guys, it was just a joke with this Bitcoin thing, I’m closing down the project,’ we would simply fork the code.

The word fork was used more and more. Gavin Andresen wrote the following message:

If Satoshi goes rogue, then the project forks.

These were all valid points. How could Bitcoin be a decentralized currency, if Satoshi was responsible for all code updates?

Gavin Andresen was a person who really rose in the ranks in 2010. He also built the first-ever Bitcoin faucet. This was a web app giving out free bitcoins.

gavin andresen

Gavin Andresen in 2014.

Laszlo Hanyecz made history in 2010 by using bitcoins for purchasing real-world products for the first time. He paid 10,000 bitcoins for two pizzas. This day (22nd of May) is still celebrated globally as Bitcoin Pizza Day.

The year 2010 was nothing like 2009. The Bitcoin community was growing fast, and there was a lot of discussion surrounding the governance.

Wikileaks and the famous Bitcoin bug

Let’s move forward to the second half of 2010. The drama was just getting started. Gavin Andresen’s role grew even bigger, and he was given permission to update the Bitcoin program code.

A historical event took place in August 2010. An unknown person took advantage of a vulnerability and created 184 billion bitcoins out of nowhere. The community spotted this quickly, and Satoshi made an update to the program code in just five hours.

After this event, Satoshi made more improvements to the security of Bitcoin.

Satoshi would move swiftly to bolster the codebase, adding and removing parts as if boarding for a storm. He took action to throttle perceived attack vectors, disabling commands for complex transaction, hard-coding checkpoint blocks into the software and installing an alert system allowing him to broadcast critical warnings to all clients. (Source)

The community realized that Bitcoin had become famous. There were people in the world who wanted to destroy it. This speeded up the discussion over Bitcoin’s governance and Satoshi’s role in making the code updates.

In December 2010, another major event took place. Wikileaks had been attacked a few months earlier and lost their Paypal accounts. See the video below for Julian Assange’s comments in 2010.

PC World Magazine published a story in early December, where Bitcoin was named as a solution to Wikileaks’ funding issues. Satoshi didn’t like this attention at all. He wrote the following message to the Bitcointalk forum.

It would have been nice to get this attention in any other context.  WikiLeaks has kicked the hornet’s nest, and the swarm is headed towards us.

Just two days later, version 0.3.19 of the Bitcoin program code was released. It was the last update by Satoshi Nakamoto. In practice, he said goodbye to the community by changing the copyright texts from Satoshi Nakamoto to Bitcoin Developers.

bitcoin-version-0-3-19

About a week later, a change of power was officially announced. Previously mentioned Gavin Andresen became the front figure of Bitcoin with Satoshi’s blessing. Andresen wrote the following messages to the Bitcointalk forum.

With Satoshi’s blessing, and with great reluctance, I’m going to start doing more active project management for bitcoin. Everybody please be patient with me; I’ve had a lot of project management experience at startups, but this is the first open source project of any size I’ve been involved with.

Andresen’s announcement didn’t cause any drama. The community had already expressed its desire to limit Satoshi’s power. People were happy to see this kind of development. In the background, Satoshi was also pushing more developers to step up and take a bigger role in the development.

The last messages of Satoshi

Satoshi didn’t disappear entirely after December 2010. He was still discussing with key people behind the scenes. Though, this happened via e-mail and less frequently. Satoshi hasn’t written a single message to Bitcointalk.org after the 13th of December 2010.

The situation was a bit confusing because Satoshi never wrote an official goodbye message anywhere. Some community members thought he had taken a vacation.

The last confirmed message from Satoshi was an e-mail to Gavin Andresen on the 26th of April in 2011. Satoshi asked Andresen not to make him a mysterious shadowy figure.

I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure, the press just turns that into a pirate currency angle. Maybe instead make it about the open source project and give more credit to your dev contributors; it helps motivate them.

Andresen replied to Satoshi and talked about his plans to participate a conference organized by the CIA. Satoshi never wrote back. A day later, Andresen wrote an official announcement to Bitcointalk.org about his plans. It was titled: Gavin will visit the CIA.

Was the previously mentioned e-mail really the last one Satoshi ever wrote? According to inbitcoinwetrust.com, Satoshi sent some e-mails also to Martti Malmi regarding the ownership of the bitcoin.org domain.

It’s interesting how little drama is related to Satoshi’s exit. It’s probably because Satoshi had been more or less gone for months already. The Bitcoin community had also grown much bigger than its founder. Satoshi just quietly moved back to the shadows where he came from.

The return of Satoshi

Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared in 2011. Or did he? Many would agree that Satoshi has written two messages after that. However, we can never be 100% certain it was Satoshi.

The first message was written in April 2014, almost exactly three years after his disappearance. Satoshi wrote to the discussion board of the P2P foundation:

I am not Dorian Nakamoto.

The reason behind the message was a story titled The Face Behind Bitcoin. Newsweek magazine revealed in this story the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto. According to Newsweek, the inventor of Bitcoin is a retired engineer living in California called Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s interesting that Dorian lived just a couple of blocks away from the previously mentioned Hal Finney. Many conspiracy theorists feel this is too big of a coincidence.

It’s likely that Dorian Nakamoto is not the real Satoshi. However, there is a theory, which sounds more probable. What if the real Satoshi had an inspiration for his pseudonym from Dorian? It would be possible if the real Satoshi was one of Hal Finney’s friends or someone living in the neighborhood.

Unfortunately, we cannot ask Hal Finney about this theory, because he died after a serious illness in 2014.

The second alleged message from Satoshi was written in August 2015. The Bitcoin community was about to split into two groups due to scaling debate. A group led by Gavin Andresen wanted to create a new version called Bitcoin XT, which would gradually increase the blockchain block size.

Satoshi came out of the shadows to express his disappointment.

If two developers can fork Bitcoin and succeed in redefining what “Bitcoin” is, in the face of widespread technical criticism and through the use of populist tactics, then I will have no choice but to declare Bitcoin a failed project. Bitcoin was meant to be both technically and socially robust. This present situation has been very disappointing to watch unfold.

You can read his entire message from this Reddit thread. It was sent from an e-mail address Satoshi had used before, but we can’t be 100% certain it really was Satoshi Nakamoto.

Satoshi’s bitcoins

Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity is the puzzle of this century. So many people have tried to solve the mystery. We don’t go deeper into this topic here to keep the article shorter.

There is also another big mystery surrounding Satoshi: bitcoins. We are not talking about pocket change here, because many analysts agree that Satoshi has about one million coins in his possession. This number is based on a study published by Sergio Lerner in 2013.

satoshis bitcoins

Whether the actual number is one million or hundreds of thousands, Satoshi’s bitcoins are worth a lot of money. They were acquired by mining. There were few people mining Bitcoin in the early days. The block reward was also extremely high, 50 BTC per block (now it’s 6.25).

The interesting thing is that none of these bitcoins have been ever moved. Satoshi hasn’t spent a single bitcoin of his vast fortune.

Some argue that this proves Satoshi is no longer with us. He’s either dead or, at least, in prison. The value of these coins is so high that it’s difficult to imagine a person who wouldn’t sell even a tiny portion of them.

There is also the argument that Satoshi is protecting his privacy by not touching the coins. There are certainly many entities tracking Satoshi’s wallets 24/7. What if Satoshi has lost his private keys or they are destroyed? There are dozens of potential explanations out there.

You could also say that Satoshi is a wealthy person, who doesn’t need the money. Even if this was true, why wouldn’t he donate those bitcoins? A million bitcoins could change the world in so many ways.

At this point, it feels unlikely Satoshi’s bitcoins are ever going to be spent. It most likely would have happened by now if Satoshi was ever going to touch his fortune.

Final words

Is Satoshi Nakamoto a British academic? Is Satoshi dead? What happens to all those bitcoins? There are so many questions left unanswered.

When you go through the history of Bitcoin, there is one thought that stands out. It’s amazing what Satoshi was able to create in such a short time. Satoshi was actively involved with Bitcoin for just a few years.

Satoshi was an incredible visionary, who has changed global economics in an irreversible way. Bitcoin is already “too big to fail”. Now it’s also legal tender in El Salvador. What kind of role Bitcoin could have in the future?

Even if Satoshi got the credit of inventing Bitcoin, he was standing on the shoulders of other giants. Wei Dai’s b-money, Adam Back’s HashCash, Nick Szabo’s big old, and many other projects & technologies built the foundation for Bitcoin.

One thing is certain. The early years of Bitcoin will be studied even more when a larger population understands its significance. There will be debates over Satoshi’s time in charge. Whatever made Satoshi leave the project, it was the most important decision in Bitcoin’s history. After that, Bitcoin became truly decentralized.

Photo by Luca Onniboni on Unsplash, Photo by Tarik Haiga on Unsplash

What is your reaction?

Excited
0
Happy
0
In Love
0
Not Sure
0
Silly
0

You may also like

Comments are closed.

More in:Analyses