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A Brief History of Blockchain

How it came about


Reading Time: 12 min

In order to understand whether blockchain technology is a good fit for your project, it's important to understand where it comes from, and who is driving it.

In this section on the history of the blockchain, you will explore:

  • A decade by decade history of blockchain technology from the 1990s to the present day.
  • The concept of public blockchains, with a closer look at:
    • Bitcoin.
    • Ethereum.
  • The challenge of building faster blocks within the chain.

This section is rich in background material. You can read closely or skim until you are happy you have enough knowledge to proceed confidently, or you can absorb everything here. If you are already well-versed in this subject, feel free to press ahead. You can always come back to this section if you are not sure about certain terms or concepts explored later on.

Protocols timeline
Protocols timeline

1990s

The first work on the foundations of what becomes blockchain technology much later was undertaken in 1991 by Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta. They first worked on the concept of append-only, cryptographically secured logs. This work was followed by publications in 1996 by Ross J. Anderson and 1998 by Bruce Schneier and John Kelsey. In 1994 computer scientist Nick Szabo first described the concept of smart contracts and in 1998 described BitGold, a conceptual predecessor to Bitcoin.

2000s

The first large scale, successful public blockchain network was Bitcoin. The first Bitcoin whitepaper was released on October 31, 2008. It proposed a data structure for the Bitcoin blockchain and laid out the decentralized consensus mechanism.

To date, the author(s) of the white paper and the first implementation of the client remain a mystery. The person or group used the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, sparking plenty of conspiracy theories. Several individuals have claimed to be Nakamoto. But to this date none of the claims have been verified.

What is certain is that the community initially working on the network and the client can be characterized as generally pro-capitalism, anti-regulation and monopoly, as well as pro-free-trade. Many of those developing and driving the technology have also heralded its potential to reduce corruption and perceived human failures by pushing processes out of human reach.

All this may not seem important, but it is. It means that blockchain as it was built and envisaged initially is not built for banks, governments or incumbent holders of monopolies. This has an influence on the direction of the technology and remains a strong influence on the development of the technology.

Given its censorship-resistance, blockchain technology has been seized upon by other groups interested in circumventing government, law enforcement or regulatory control, both on the radical right and left fringes as well as among activists persecuted by their governments.

2010s

As soon as it became clear that the technology presents a very attractive base infrastructure for payments, other groups and organisations adapted the technology for their purposes or developed new approaches using the same basic principles but adapting them to more traditional use cases.

In 2014 Vitalik Buterin started what is now known as the second wave of blockchain technology by publishing the paper underlying the Ethereum blockchain protocol, A Next Generation Smart Contract & Decentralized Application Platform (Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s creator). Beyond being a distributed ledger, the Ethereum white paper proposed the development of a distributed computation platform.

The Ethereum project raised roughly $20 million in one of the most successful crowdfunds up to that point. The first public network was up and running in 2015. In the same time it spawned the first managed blockchain network approach when the company Eris forked a version of Ethereum and expanded it to implement a layer of permissions, as well as making it easier to deploy custom, access-controlled networks.

Late 2015 saw the establishment of the Hyperledger foundation, an industry consortium with a focus on enterprise blockchain technology for managed networks.

Early in 2016, R3CEV, later renamed R3, announced it was working on a distributed ledger "that might otherwise be considered a blockchain, but which the company made perfectly clear was anything but." Corda has many blockchain-like properties as well as distinctive properties.

In 2017 the Ethereum Enterprise Alliance was formed as an industry consortium to adapt Ethereum for enterprise use.

Today, two broader trends in the development and adoption of blockchain technology are emerging.

Public Blockchains

The most obvious way of operating blockchain protocols comes in the form of a public network. This is what blockchain technology was originally invented for and remains, arguably, its most powerful use.

A proof-of-work based public blockchain network, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, has a few specific attributes:

  • Accessibility - All you need to connect to Bitcoin or Ethereum is the client software and an internet connection. No AML, KYC, identity checks or subscription payment.
  • No hierarchy - All nodes are equal. No individual node has more authority than another. All miners are equal. Mining is something a node decides to do, not something a node is.
  • Cryptoeconomic incentives - Because of the lack of central authority there is no absolute defence against malicious behavior. Instead, the network is usually constructed in a way that incentivizes behavior beneficial to the network and disincentivizes behavior detrimental to the network. Among these incentives are transaction fees, miner rewards and prohibitively expensive costs associated with attacking the network.
  • Full decentralisation - Most public networks are completely decentralized because they are non-hierarchical and fully accessible. That also means the playing field for market participants is fairly level and traditional business models may not work well in such a setting.

The two most popular examples of functioning public networks are Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Introduction to Bitcoin

Since 2009 the most successful and popular public blockchain network has been Bitcoin. Bitcoin was first introduced with the publication of the original paper Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system (2008) by Satoshi Nakamoto. In this paper, Nakamoto describes Bitcoin as a peer-to-peer version of electronic cash. He suggests that proof-of-work can be used to find the truth in a partially synchronous system without involving trusted parties. Using this method, the set of participants controlling the majority of the computing power determines the truth.

Let us look at this in more detail. Nakamoto does not use the term block chain in his paper, but he describes the concept by explaining transactions in Bitcoin. The transaction process requires the signing of the transaction with the hash of the previous transaction and the public key of the recipient. This is called the chain of ownership. Transactions can contain several inputs and outputs.

Chain of block with previous hash
Chain of block with previous hash

Figure 1: Each block includes the previous hash and a nonce (a random set of 1s and 0s). The protocol calls for a hash beginning with a specific number of binary 0s, when hashing the block. An attacker trying to change a transaction in a block must then mine this and the following blocks. Reproduced from the Bitcoin paper.

To prevent double-spending, Bitcoin uses a timestamp server but this role (miner) is assigned in a pseudo-random fashion. The miner looks for a nonce which results in a block hash beginning with prescribed number of binary 0s (See Figure 1). It is difficult to find a nonce that fulfils this condition but it is trivial to verify that it does. It becomes exponentially more difficult to alter history as more blocks are appended.

In order to promote an alternative version of history, an attacker must find a nonce for the block to change, and for every subsequent block thereafter because the network recognizes that the longest valid chain contains proof of the most work. The longest chain is deemed the truth. This is known as the longest chain rule in Proof-of-Work systems.

There remains a residual probability that a slower attacker can catch up since finding a nonce works by brute force. This possibility decreases exponentially with the number of blocks appended after the block an attacker targets for modification. The later blocks are colloquially called confirmations. As confirmations are appended, confidence in historical transactions increases because the edge cases become exponentially unlikely.

The protocol includes a reward for mining, which is the first special transaction in each block. New coins are minted into existence and awarded to the miner that discovered the block. Incentives are aligned to encourage nodes to use their CPU power honestly, to get the reward. Transactions are signed and announced publicly and signing keys are meant to be closely guarded by all participants.

Introduction to Ethereum

Ethereum emerged from a range of proposals rejected by the Bitcoin community. The most important difference, as compared to Bitcoin, is the implementation of distributed code execution through the Ethereum Virtual Machine. This code execution platform is Turing-complete. The EVM enables the deployment of so-called smart contracts via transactions.

Ethereum has a much faster block time than Bitcoin (currently around 15s), made practical thanks to its implementation of the GHOST protocol.[1] Ethereum implements a variation of Bitcoin's proof-of-work consensus algorithm called Ethash, which is intended to be ASIC-resistant and GPU friendly[2]. Core developers of the Ethereum project are planning to propose switching to the proof-of-stake consensus algorithm in the future.

At this stage, it is worth mentioning that "consensus" in this context refers only to the temporary assignment of authority to disambiguate transaction order for a period of time because, given a consensus about the transaction log, nodes are fully equipped to compute everything else.

Let us have a look at the Ethereum protocol to understand how it differs from Bitcoin. Our reference is the yellow paper Ethereum: A Secure Decentralized Generalized Transaction Ledger (2014) by Dr. Gavin Wood.

The Ethereum network is a virtual state machine, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). The implementation of such a state machine with blockchain is revolutionary in itself. To achieve Turing-completeness frameworks must overcome the "halting problem" which is difficult, especially in a distributed, hierarchy-free computing platform. In case this is not clear, the halting problem is about what to do in the case that a process runs amok. Well-known solutions such as a hardware reset do not apply to a worldwide state machine that cannot be restarted.

Ethereum’s solution is to introduce “gas” as a fee for each computational step. Every block has a maximum gas limit. This limits the number of computational steps that can be executed per block. When paid for, gas is given a price. Individual users control this price at the transaction level, and are free to specify any gas price. That is, users bid for network computation. When the accounting is done, the EVM converts this transaction gas price and gas consumed into Ether spent. Ether is the native Ethereum currency, which is issued via the mining process. The Ethereum protocol defines the gas cost for each operation in the EVM. In this context, "operations" are low-level assembler-like steps, so the cost-accounting is quite granular.

A smart contract in the EVM is practically an autonomous agent with an internal account. While external actors, e.g. humans and servers, sign transactions, smart contracts execute deterministic code. Smart contracts have no alternative. Correct execution of smart contract code is part of the transaction validation process.

In case the foregoing appears cryptic, consider that a typical money transfer would be a message signed by Alice to send an amount to Bob, where both Alice and Bob are known by their Ethereum address. A contract execution is a transaction, possibly with a message, signed by Alice, sent to a contract which is also known by an Ethereum address. Running the codified function is the only correct interpretation of the message Alice signed.

How did the contract get on the blockchain? Someone, a.k.a. the deployer, sent a transaction with a specially crafted message that instructed the EVM to deploy code. Since that transaction is part of the immutable blockchain history, its presence is self-evident to all nodes. Such is the only possible interpretation of the deployment transaction.

The most popular high-level language for writing smart contracts for Ethereum is Solidity. A compiler generates machine code (OPCODES) the EVM understands. The EVM language, the OPCODES, are assembler-like but they are decoupled from hardware. OPCODES are defined entirely in software - the Ethereum protocol.

Faster Blocks

Blockchain and uncle diagram
Blockchain and uncle diagram

Figure 2: A well-understood challenge related to reduced block time stems from network latency. Since nodes do not know about discovered blocks at the same time, at any given time a portion of the miners will be working on already solved, i.e. old, blocks. If these miners find a solution, they might not be rewarded. The rate at which such transient "forks" occur increases predictably with shorter block times. While Bitcoin addresses this efficiency issue with a relatively long block time (ten minutes), Ethereum addresses this concern with a partial reward strategy. Valid blocks that are not ultimately included in the prevailing canonical chain are still included on the side and known as "uncles". Miners of uncles receive a smaller reward than regular block miners.

The precise mechanism employed by Ethereum is called GHOST - Greedy Heaviest Observed Subtree. GHOST includes so-called uncles that are propagated into the network, too late to rise to the level of network consensus (see Figure 2). This increases the total difficulty of the chain, makes smaller block times (about 14-18 seconds) possible and rewards miners of uncles for contributing to the overall strength of the network.

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