A (live/editable) timeline of historical events directly or indirectly related to the creation of Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies
*still workin' on this so check back later and more will be added, if you have any suggested dates/events feel free to lemme know...
This timeline includes dates pertaining to:
- Forms of money
- Banking models
- Bank Bailouts
- Widely accepted economic systems
- Widely accepted forms of government
- Inventions which advanced FinTech
- Inventions in computer science and related technology
- Inventions which connected the world via transportation, communication and information
- Development of cryptography and cyberwar
- Notable Social Movements
- Hyperinflation and National Debts
Ancient Bartering – first recorded in Egypt (resources, services...) – doesn’t scale
Tally sticks were used, making notches in bones or wood, as a form of money of account
9000-6000 BC Livestock considered the first form of currency
c3200 BC Clay tablets used in Uruk (Iraq) for accounting (believed to be the earliest form of writing)
3000 BC Grain is used as a currency, measured out in Shekels
3000 BC Banking developed in Mesopotamia
3000 BC? Punches used to stamp symbols on coins were a precursor to the printing press and modern coins
? BC Since ancient Persia and all the way up until the invention and expansion of the telegraph Homing Pigeons were used to carry messages
2000 BC Merchants in Assyria, India and Sumeria lent grain to farmers and traders as a precursor to banks
1700 BC In Babylon at the time of Hammurabi, in the 18th century BC, there are records of loans made by the priests of the temple.
1200 BC Shell money first used in China
1000-600 BC Crude metal coins first appear in China
640 BC Precious metal coins – Gold & Silver first used in ancient Lydia and coastal Greek cities featuring face to face heads of a bull and a lion – first official minted currency made from electrum, a mixture of gold and silver
600-500 BC Atbash Cipher
A substitution Cipher used by ancient Hebrew scholars mapping the alphabet in reverse, for example, in English an A would be a Z, B a Y etc.
400 BC Skytale used by Sparta
474 BC Hundreds of gold coins from this era were discovered in Rome in 2018
350 BC Greek hydraulic semaphore system, an optical communication system developed by Aeneas Tacticus.
c200 BC Polybius Square
??? Wealthy stored coins in temples, where priests also lent them out
??? Rome was the first to create banking institutions apart from temples
118 BC First banknote in the form of 1 foot sq pieces of white deerskin
100-1 AD Caesar Cipher
193 Aureus, a gold coin of ancient Rome, minted by Septimius Severus
324 Solidus, pure gold coin, minted under Constantine’s rule, lasted until the late 8th century
600s Paper currency first developed in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century, although true paper money did not appear until the 11th century, during the Song Dynasty, 960–1279
c757–796 Silver pennies based on the Roman denarius became the staple coin of Mercia in Great Britain around the time of King Offa
806 First paper banknotes used in China but isn’t widely accepted in China until 960
1024 The first series of standard government notes were issued in 1024 with denominations like 1 guàn (貫, or 700 wén), 1 mín (緡, or 1000 wén), up to 10 guàn. In 1039 only banknotes of 5 guàn and 10 guàn were issued, and in 1068 a denomination of 1 guàn was introduced which became forty percent of all circulating Jiaozi banknotes.
1040 The first movable type printer was invented in China and made of porcelain
? Some of the earliest forms of long distance communication were drums used by Native Africans and smoke signals used by Native Americans and Chinese
1088 Movable type in Song Dynasty China
1120 By the 1120s the central government officially stepped in and produced their own state-issued paper money (using woodblock printing)
1150 The Knights Templar issued bank notes to pilgrims. Pilgrims deposited their valuables with a local Templar preceptory before embarking, received a document indicating the value of their deposit, then used that document upon arrival in the Holy Land to retrieve their funds in an amount of treasure of equal value.
1200s-1300s During the 13th century bankers from north Italy, collectively known as Lombards, gradually replace the Jews in their traditional role as money-lenders to the rich and powerful. – Florence, Venice and Genoa - The Bardi and Peruzzi Families dominated banking in 14th century Florence, establishing branches in many other parts of Europe
1200 By the time Marco Polo visited China they’d move from coins to paper money, who introduced the concept to Europe. An inscription warned, "All counterfeiters will be decapitated." Before the use of paper, the Chinese used coins that were circular, with a rectangular hole in the middle. Several coins could be strung together on a rope. Merchants in China, if they became rich enough, found that their strings of coins were too heavy to carry around easily. To solve this problem, coins were often left with a trustworthy person, and the merchant was given a slip of paper recording how much money they had with that person. Marco Polo's account of paper money during the Yuan Dynasty is the subject of a chapter of his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, titled "How the Great Kaan Causeth the Bark of Trees, Made Into Something Like Paper, to Pass for Money All Over his Country."
1252 Florin minted in Florence, becomes the hard currency of its day helping Florence thrive economically
1340 Double-entry bookkeeping - The clerk keeping the accounts for the Genoese firm of Massari painstakingly fills in the ledger for the year 1340.
1397 Medici Bank established
1450 Johannes Gutenberg builds the printing press – printed words no longer just for the rich
1455 Paper money disappears from China
1466 Polyalphabetic Cipher
1466 Rotating cipher disks – Vatican – greatest crypto invention in 1000 yrs – the first system to challenge frequency analysis
1466 First known mechanical cipher machine
1472 The oldest bank still in existence founded, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, headquartered in Siena, Italy
1494 Double-entry bookkeeping system codified by Luca Pacioli
1535 Wampum, a form of currency used by Native Americans, a string of beads made from clamshells, is first document.
1553 Vigenere Cipher
1557 Phillip II of Spain managed to burden his kingdom with so much debt (as the result of several pointless wars) that he caused the world's first national bankruptcy — as well as the world's second, third and fourth, in rapid succession.
1577 Newspaper in Korea
1586 The Babington Plot
1590 Cabinet Noir was established in France. Its mission was to open, read and reseal letters, and great expertise was developed in the restoration of broken seals. In the knowledge that mail was being opened, correspondents began to develop systems to encrypt and decrypt their letters. The breaking of these codes gave birth to modern systematic scientific code breaking.
1600s Promissory banknotes began in London
1600s By the early 17th century banking begins also to exist in its modern sense - as a commercial service for customers rather than kings. – Late 17th century we see cheques slowly gains acceptance
The total of the money left on deposit by a bank's customers is a large sum, only a fraction of which is usually required for withdrawals. A proportion of the rest can be lent out at interest, bringing profit to the bank. When the customers later come to realize this hidden value of their unused funds, the bank's profit becomes the difference between the rates of interest paid to depositors and demanded from debtors.
The transformation from moneylenders into private banks is a gradual one during the 17th and 18th centuries. In England it is achieved by various families of goldsmiths who early in the period accept money on deposit purely for safe-keeping. Then they begin to lend some of it out. Finally, by the 18th century, they make banking their business in place of their original craft as goldsmiths.
1605 Newspaper in Straussburg
c1627 Great Cipher
1637 Wampum is declared as legal tender in the U.S. (where we got the slang word “clams” for money)
1656 Johan Palmstruch establishes the Stockholm Banco
1661 Paper Currency reappears in Europe, soon became common - The goldsmith-bankers of London began to give out the receipts as payable to the bearer of the document rather than the original depositor
1661 Palmstruch issues credit notes which can be exchanged, on presentation to his bank, for a stated number of silver coins
1666 Stockholms Banco, the predecessor to the Central Bank of Sweden issues the first paper money in Europe. Soon went bankrupt for printing too much money.
1667 He issues more notes than his bank can afford to redeem with silver and winds up in disgrace, facing a death penalty (commuted to imprisonment) for fraud.
1668 Bank of Sweden – today the 2nd oldest surviving bank
1694 First Central Bank established in the UK was the first bank to initiate the permanent issue of banknotes
Served as model for most modern central banks.
The modern banknote rests on the assumption that money is determined by a social and legal consensus. A gold coin's value is simply a reflection of the supply and demand mechanism of a society exchanging goods in a free market, as opposed to stemming from any intrinsic property of the metal. By the late 17th century, this new conceptual outlook helped to stimulate the issue of banknotes.
1700s Throughout the commercially energetic 18th century there are frequent further experiments with bank notes - deriving from a recognized need to expand the currency supply beyond the availability of precious metals.
1712 First commercial steam engine
1717 Master of the Royal Mint Sir Isaac Newton established a new mint ratio between silver and gold that had the effect of driving silver out of circulation (bimetalism) and putting Britain on a gold standard.
1735 Classical Economics – markets regulate themselves when free of intervention
1744 Mayer Amschel Rothschild, Founder of the Rothschild Banking Empire, is Born in Frankfurt, Germany
Mayer Amschel Rothschild extended his banking empire across Europe by carefully placing his five sons in key positions. They set up banks in Frankfurt, Vienna, London, Naples, and Paris. By the mid 1800’s they dominated the banking industry, lending to governments around the world and people such as the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, and Cecil Rhodes.
1745 There was a gradual move toward the issuance of fixed denomination notes in England standardized printed notes ranging from £20 to £1,000 were being printed.
1748 First recorded use of the word buck for a dollar, stemming from the Colonial period in America when buck skins were commonly traded
1757 Colonial Scrip Issued in US
1760s Mayer Amschel Rothschild establishes his banking business
1769 First steam powered car
1775-1938 US Diplomatic Codes & Ciphers by Ralph E Weber used – problems were security and distribution
1776 American Independence
1776 Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theory helped bankers and money-lenders limit government interference in the banking sector
1781 The Bank of North America was a private bank first adopted created the US Nation's first de facto central bank. When shares in the bank were sold to the public, the Bank of North America became the country's first initial public offering. It lasted less than ten years.
1783 First steamboat
1791 Congress Creates the First US Bank – A Private Company, Partly Owned by Foreigners – to Handle the Financial Needs of the New Central Government. First Bank of the United States, a National bank, chartered for a term of twenty years, it was not renewed in 1811.
Previously, the 13 states had their own banks, currencies and financial institutions, which had an average lifespan of about 5 years.
1792 First optical telegraph invented where towers with telescopes were dispersed across France 12-25 km apart, relaying signals according to positions of arms extended from the top of the towers.
1795 Thomas Jefferson invents the Jefferson Disk Cipher or Wheel Cipher
1797 to 1821 Restriction Period by England of trading banknotes for silver during Napoleonic Wars
1797 Currency Crisis
Although the Bank was originally a private institution, by the end of the 18th century it was increasingly being regarded as a public authority with civic responsibility toward the upkeep of a healthy financial system.
1799 First paper machine
1800 Banque de France – France’s central bank opens to try to improve financing of the war
1800 Invention of the battery
1801 Rotchschild Dynasty begins in Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire – established international banking family through his 5 sons who established themselves in London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Naples
1804 Steam locomotive
1807 Internal combustion engine and automobile
1807 Robert Fulton expands water transportation and trade with the workable steamboat.
1811 First powered printing press, also first to use a cylinder
1816 The Privately Owned Second Bank of the US was Chartered – It Served as the Main Depository for Government Revenue, Making it a Highly Profitable Bank – charter not renewed in 1836
1816 The first working telegraph was built using static electricity
1816 Gold becomes the official standard of value in England
1820 Industrial Revolution
c1820 Neoclassical Economics
1821 British gov introduces the gold standard - With governments issuing the bank notes, the inherent danger is no longer bankruptcy but inflation.
1822 Charles Babbage, considered the "father of the computer", begins building the first programmable mechanical computer.
1832 Andrew Jackson Campaigns Against the 2nd Bank of the US and Vetoes Bank Charter Renewal
Andrew Jackson was skeptical of the central banking system and believed it gave too few men too much power and caused inflation. He was also a proponent of gold and silver and an outspoken opponent of the 2nd National Bank. The Charter expired in 1836.
1833 President Jackson Issues Executive Order to Stop Depositing Government Funds Into Bank of US
By September 1833, government funds were being deposited into state chartered banks.
1833-1837 Manufactured “boom” created by central bankers – money supply Increases 84%, Spurred by the 2nd Bank of the US
The total money supply rose from $150 million to $267 million
1835 Jackson Escapes Assassination. Assassin misfired twice.
1837-1862 The “Free Banking Era” there was no formal central bank in the US, and banks issued their own notes again
1838 First Telegram sent using Morse Code across 3 km, in 1844 he sent a message across 71 km from Washington DC to Baltimore.
1843 Ada Lovelace published the first algorithm for computing
1844 Modern central bank of England established - meaning only the central bank of England could issue banknotes – prior to that commercial banks could issue their own and were the primary form of currency throughout England
the Bank of England was restricted to issue new banknotes only if they were 100% backed by gold or up to £14 million in government debt.
1848 Communist Manifesto
1850 The first undersea telegraphic communications cable connected France in England after latex produced from the sap of the Palaquium gutta tree in 1845 was proposed as insulation for the underwater cables.
1852 Many countries in Europe build telegram networks, however post remained the primary means of communication to distant countries.
1855 In England fully printed notes that did not require the name of the payee and the cashier's signature first appeared
1855 The printing telegraph made it possible for a machine with 26 alphabetic keys to print the messages automatically and was soon adopted worldwide.
1856 Belgian engineer Charles Bourseul proposed telephony
1856 The Atlantic Telegraph company was formed in London to stretch a commercial telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean, completed in 1866.
1860 The Pony Express was founded, able to deliver mail of wealthy individuals or government officials from coast to coast in 10 days.
1861 The East coast was connected to the West when Western Union completed the transcontinental telegraph line, putting an end to unprofitable The Pony Express.
1862-1863 First US banknotes - Lincoln Over Rules Debt-Based Money and Issues Greenbacks to Fund Civil War
Bankers would only lend the government money under certain conditions and at high interest rates, so Lincoln issued his own currency – “greenbacks” – through the US Treasury, and made them legal tender. His soldiers went on to win the war, followed by great economic expansion.
1863 to 1932 “National Banking Era” Commercial banks in the United States had legally issued banknotes before there was a national currency; however, these became subject to government authorization from 1863 to 1932
1864 Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen founded the first rural credit union in Heddesdorf (now part of Neuwied) in Germany. By the time of Raiffeisen's death in 1888, credit unions had spread to Italy, France, the Netherlands, England, Austria, and other nations
1870 Long-distance telegraph lines connected Britain and India.
c1871 Marginalism - The doctrines of marginalism and the Marginal Revolution are often interpreted as a response to the rise of the worker's movement, Marxian economics and the earlier (Ricardian) socialist theories of the exploitation of labour.
1871 Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics – Austrian School
1872 Marx’s Das Capital
1872 Australia becomes the first nation to be connected to the rest of the world via submarine telegraph cables.
1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, first called the electric speech machine – revolutionized communication
1877 Thomas Edison – Phonograph
1878 Western Union, the leading telegraph provider of the U.S., begins to lose out to the telephone technology of the National Bell Telephone Company.
1881 President James Garfield, Staunch Proponent of “Honest Money” Backed by Gold and Silver, was Assassinated
Garfield opposed fiat currency (money that was not backed by any physical object). He had the second shortest Presidency in history.
1882 First description of the one-time pad
1886 First gas powered car
1888 Ballpoint pen
1895 System of wireless communication using radio waves
1896 First successful intercontinental telegram
1899 Nickel-cadmium battery
1907 Banking Panic of 1907
The New York Stock Exchange dropped dramatically as everyone tried to get their money out of the banks at the same time across the nation. This banking panic spurred debate for banking reform. JP Morgan and others gathered to create an image of concern and stability in the face of the panic, which eventually led to the formation of the Federal Reserve. The founders of the Federal Reserve pretended like the bankers were opposed to the idea of its formation in order to mislead the public into believing that the Federal Reserve would help to regulate bankers when in fact it really gave even more power to private bankers, but in a less transparent way.
1908 St Mary’s Bank – first credit union in US
1908 JP Morgan Associate and Rockefeller Relative Nelson Aldrich Heads New National Monetary Commission
Senate Republican leader, Nelson Aldrich, heads the new National Monetary Commission that was created to study the cause of the banking panic. Aldrich had close ties with J.P. Morgan and his daughter married John D. Rockefeller.
1910 Bankers Meet Secretly on Jekyll Island to Draft Federal Reserve Banking Legislation
Over the course of a week, some of the nation’s most powerful bankers met secretly off the coast of Georgia, drafting a proposal for a private Central Banking system.
1913 Federal Reserve Act Passed
Two days before Christmas, while many members of Congress were away on vacation, the Federal Reserve Act was passed, creating the Central banking system we have today, originally with gold backed Federal Reserve Notes. It was based on the Aldrich plan drafted on Jekyll Island and gave private bankers supreme authority over the economy. They are now able to create money out of nothing (and loan it out at interest), make decisions without government approval, and control the amount of money in circulation.
1913 Income tax established -16th Amendment Ratified
Taxes ensured that citizens would cover the payment of debt due to the Central Bank, the Federal Reserve, which was also created in 1913.The 16th Amendment stated: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”
1914 November, Federal Reserve Banks Open
JP Morgan and Co. Profits from Financing both sides of War and Purchasing Weapons
J.P. Morgan and Co. made a deal with the Bank of England to give them a monopoly on underwriting war bonds for the UK and France. They also invested in the suppliers of war equipment to Britain and France.
1917 Teletype cipher
1917 The one-time pad
1917 Zimmerman Telegram intercepted and decoded by Room 40, the cryptanalysis department of the British Military during WWI.
1918 GB returns to gold standard post-war but it didn’t work out
1919 First rotor machine, an electro-mechanical stream ciphering and decrypting machine.
1919 Founding of The Cipher Bureau, Poland’s intelligence and cryptography agency.
1919-1929 The Black Chamber, a forerunner of the NSA, was the first U.S. cryptanalytic organization. Worked with the telegraph company Western Union to illegally acquire foreign communications of foreign embassies and representatives. It was shut down in 1929 as funding was removed after it was deemed unethical to intercept private domestic radio signals.
1920s Department stores, hotel chains and service staions begin offering customers charge cards
1921-1929 The “Roaring 20’s” – The Federal Reserve Floods the Economy with Cash and Credit
From 1921 to 1929 the Federal Reserve increased the money supply by $28 billion, almost a 62% increase over an eight-year period. This artificially created another “boom”.
1927 Quartz clock
1928 First experimental Television broadcast in the US.
1929 Federal Reserve Contracts the Money Supply
In 1929, the Federal Reserve began to pull money out of circulation as loans were paid back. They created a “bust” which was inevitable after issuing so much credit in the years before. The Federal Reserve’s actions triggered the banking crisis, which led to the Great Depression.
1929 October 24, “Black Thursday”, Stock Market Crash
The most devastating stock market crash in history. Billions of dollars in value were consolidated into the private banker’s hands at the expense of everyone else.
1930s The Great Depression marked the end of the gold standard
1931 German Enigma machines attained and reconstructed.
1932 Turbo jet engine patented
1933 SEC founded - passed the Glass–Steagall Act, which separated investment banking and commercial banking. This was to avoid more risky investment banking activities from ever again causing commercial bank failures.
1933 FM Radio
1933 Germany begins Telex, a network of teleprinters sending and receiving text based messages. Post WWII Telex networks began to spread around the world.
1936 Austrian engineer Paul Eisler invented Printed circuit board
1936 Beginning of the Keynesian Revolution
1937 Typex, British encryption machines which were upgraded versions of Enigma machines.
1927 Founding of highly secret and unofficial Signal Intelligence Service, SIS, the U.S. Army’s codebreaking division.
1937 Made illegal for Americans to own gold
1938 Z1 built by Konrad Zuse is the first freely programmable computer in the world.
1939 WWII – decline of the gold standard which greatly restricted policy making
1939-45 Codetalkers - The Navajo code is the only spoken military code never to have been deciphered - "Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima."—Howard Connor
1942 Deciphering Japanese coded messages leads to a turning point victory for the U.S. in WWII.
1943 At Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and team build a specialized cipher-breaking machine called Heath Robinson.
1943 Colossus computer built in London to crack the German Lorenz cipher.
1944 Bretton Woods – convenient after the US had most of the gold
1945 Manhattan Project – Atom Bomb
1945 Transatlantic telephone cable
1945 Claude E. Shannon published "A mathematical theory of cryptography", commonly accepted as the starting point for development of modern cryptography.
C1946 Crypto Wars begin and last to this day
1946 Charg-it card created by John C Biggins
1948 Atomic clock
1948 Claude Shannon writes a paper that establishes the mathematical basis of information theory
1949 Info theorist Claude Shannon asks “What does an ideal cipher look like?” – one time pad – what if the keys are not truly random
1950 First credit card released by the Diners Club, able to be used in 20 restaurants in NYC
1951 NSA, National Security Agency founded and creates the KL-7, an off-line rotor encryption machine
1952 First thermonuclear weapon
1953 First videotape recorder
1953 Term “Hash” first used meaning to “chop” or “make a mess” out of something
1954 Atomic Energy Act (no mention of crypto)
1957 The NSA begins producing ROMOLUS encryption machines, soon to be used by NATO
1957 First PC – IBM
1957 First Satellite – Sputnik 1
1958 Western Union begins building a nationwide Telex network in the U.S.
1960s Machine readable codes were added to the bottom of cheques in MICR format, which speeded up the clearing and sorting process
1960s Financial organizations were beginning to require strong commercial encryption on the rapidly growing field of wired money transfer.
1961 Electronic clock
1963 June 4, Kennedy Issued an Executive Order (11110) that Authorized the US Treasury to Issue Silver Certificates, Threatening the Federal Reserve’s Monopoly on Money
This government issued currency would bypass the governments need to borrow from bankers at interest.
1963 Electronic calculator
1963 Nov. 22, Kennedy Assassinated
1963 Johnson Reverses Kennedy’s Banking Rule and Restores Power to the Federal Reserve
1964 LAN, Local Area Networks adapters
1965 Moore’s Law by CEO of Intel Gordon Moore observes that the number of components per integrated circuit doubles every year, and projected this rate of growth would continue for at least another decade. In 1975 he revised it to every two years.
1967 First ATM installed at Barclay’s Bank in London
1968 Cassette Player introduced
1969 First connections of ARPANET, predecessor of the internet, are made. started – SF, SB, UCLA, Utah (now Darpa) – made to stay ahead of the Soviets – there were other networks being built around the world but it was very hard to connect them – CERN in Europe
1970s Stagflation – unemployment + inflation, which Keynesian theory could not explain
1970s Business/commercial applications for Crypto emerge – prior to this time it was militarily used – ATMs 1st got people thinking about commercial applications of cryptography – data being sent over telephone lines
1970s The public developments of the 1970s broke the near monopoly on high quality cryptography held by government organizations.
Use of checks increased in 70s – bringing about ACH
One way functions...
A few companies began selling access to private networks – but weren’t allowed to connect to the internet – business and universities using Arpanet had no commercial traffic – internet was used for research, not for commerce or advertising
1970 Railroads threatened by the growing popularity of air travel. Penn Central Railroad declares bankruptcy resulting in a $3.2 billion bailout
1970 Conjugate coding used in an attempt to design “money physically impossible to counterfeit”
1971 The US officially removes the gold standard
1971 Email invented
1971 First microcomputer on a chip
1971 Lockheed Bailout - $1.4 billion – Lockheed was a major government defense contractor
1972 First programmable word processor
1972 First video game console
1973 SWIFT established
1973 Ethernet invented, standardized in ‘83
1973 Mobile phone
1973 First commercial GUI – Xerox Alto
1973 First touchscreen
1973 Emails made up more than ¾ of ARPANET’s packets – people had to keep a map of the network by their desk – so DNS was created
1974 A protocol for packet network intercommunication – TCP/IP – Cerf and Kahn
1974 Franklin National Bank Bailout - $1.5 billion (valued at that time) - At the time, it was the largest bank failure in US history
1975 New York City Bailout - $9.4 billion – NYC was overextended
1975 W DES - meant that commercial uses of high quality encryption would become common, and serious problems of export control began to arise.
1975 DES, Data Encryption Standard developed at IBM, seeking to develop secure electronic communications for banks and large financial organizations. DES was the first publicly accessible cipher to be 'blessed' by a national agency such as the NSA. Its release stimulated an explosion of public and academic interest in cryptography.
1975 Digital camera
1975 Altair 8800 sparks the microprocessor revolution
1976 Bretton Woods ratified (lasted 30 years) – by 80’s all nations were using floating currencies
1976 New Directions in Cryptography published by Diffie & Hellman – this terrified Fort Meade – previously this technique was classified, now it’s public
1976 Apple I Computer – Steve Wozniak
1976 Asymmetric key cryptosystem published by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman.
1976 Hellman and Diffie publish New Directions in Cryptography, introducing a radically new method of distributing cryptographic keys, contributing much to solving key distribution one of the fundamental problems of cryptography. It brought about the almost immediate public development of asymmetric key algorithms. - where people can have 2 sets of keys, public and private
1977 Diffie & Hellman receive letter from NSA employee JA Meyer that they’re violating Federal Laws comparable to arms export – this raises the question, “Can the gov prevent academics from publishing on crypto?
1977 DES considered insecure
1977 First handheld electronic game
1977 RSA public key encryption invented
1978 McEliece Cryptosystem invented, first asymmetric encryption algorithm to use randomization in the encryption process
1980s Large data centers began being built to store files and give users a better faster experience – companies rented space from them - Data centers would not only store data but scour it to show people what they might want to see and in some cases, sell data
1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism
1980 A decade of intense bank failures begins; the FDIC reports that 1,600 were either closed or received financial assistance from 1980 to 1994
1980 Chrysler Bailout – lost over $1 billion due to major hubris on the part of its executives - $1.5 billion one of the largest payouts ever made to a single corporation.
1980 Protocols for public key cryptosystems – Ralph Merkle
1980 Flash memory invented – public in ‘84
1981 “Untraceable Electronic Mail, Return Addresses and Digital Pseudonumns” – Chaum
1981 EFTPOS, Electronic funds transfer at point of sale is created
1981 IBM Personal Computer
1982 “The Ethics of Liberty” Murray Rothbard
1982 Commodore 64
1983 Satellite TV
1983 First built in hard drive
1983 Blind signatures for untraceable payments
Mid 1980s Use of ATMs becomes more widespread
1984 Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust bailed out due to overly aggressive lending styles and - the bank’s downfall could be directly traced to risk taking and a lack of due diligence on the part of bank officers - $9.5 billion in 2008 money
1984 Macintosh Computer - the first mass-market personal computer that featured a graphical user interface, built-in screen and mouse
1984 CD Rom
1985 Zero-Knowledge Proofs first proposed
1985 300,000 simultaneous telephone conversations over single optical fiber
1985 Elliptic Curve Cryptography
1987 ARPANET had connected over 20k guarded computers by this time
1988 First private networks email servers connected to NSFNET
1988 The Crypto Anarchists Manifesto – Timothy C May
1988 ISDN, Integrated Services Digital Network
1989 Savings & Loan Bailout - After the widespread failure of savings and loan institutions, President George H. W. Bush signed and Congress enacted the Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act - This was a taxpayer bailout of about $200 billion
1989 First commercial emails sent
1989 Digicash - Chaum
1989 Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau built the prototype system which became the World Wide Web, WWW
1989 First ISPs – companies with no network of their own which connected people to a local network and to the internet - To connect to a network your computer placed a phone call through a modem which translated analog signals to digital signals – dial-up was used to connect computers as phone lines already had an extensive network across the U.S. – but phone lines weren’t designed for high pitched sounds that could change fast to transmit large amounts of data
1990s Cryptowars really heat up...
1990s Some countries started to change their laws to allow "truncation"
1990s Encryption export controls became a matter of public concern with the introduction of the personal computer. Phil Zimmermann's PGP cryptosystem and its distribution on the Internet in 1991 was the first major 'individual level' challenge to controls on export of cryptography. The growth of electronic commerce in the 1990s created additional pressure for reduced restrictions. Shortly afterward, Netscape's SSL technology was widely adopted as a method for protecting credit card transactions using public key cryptography.
1990 NSFNET replaced Arpanet as backbone of the internet with more than 500k users
Early 90s Dial up provided through AOL and Compuserve
People were leery to use credit cards on the internet
1991 How to time-stamp a digital doc - Stornetta
1991 Phil Zimmermann releases the public key encryption program Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) along with its source code, which quickly appears on the Internet. He distributed a freeware version of PGP when he felt threatened by legislation then under consideration by the US Government that would require backdoors to be included in all cryptographic products developed within the US. Expanded the market to include anyone wanting to use cryptography on a personal computer (before only military, governments, large corporations)
1991 WWW (Tim Berners Lee) – made public in ‘93 – flatten the “tree” structure of the internet using hypertext – reason for HTTP//:WWW – LATER HTTPS for more security
1992 Erwise – first Internet Browser w a graphical Interface
1992 Congress passed a law allowing for commercial traffic on NSFNET
1992 Cpherpunks, Eric Hughes, Tim C May and John Gilmore – online privacy and safety from gov – cypherpunks write code so it can be spread and not shut down (in my earlier chapter)
1993 Mosaic – popularized surfing the web ‘til Netscape Navigator in ’94 – whose code was later used in Firefox
1993 A Cypherpunks Manifesto – Eric Hughes
1994 World’s first online cyberbank, First Virtual, opened for business
1994 First DVD player
1994 Stanford Federal Credit Union becomes the first financial institution to offer online internet banking services to all of its members in October 1994
1994 Internet only used by a few
1994 Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption protocol released by Netscape. Making financial transactions possible.
1994 One of the first online purchases was made, a Pizza Hut pepperoni pizza with mushrooms and extra cheese
1994 Cyphernomicon published – social implication where gov can’t do anything about it
1994-1999 Social Networking – GeoCities (combining creators and users) – had 19M users by ’99 – 3rd most popular after AOL and Yahoo – GeoCities purchased by Yahoo for $3.6B but took a hit after dotcom bubble popped and never recovered – GC shut down in ‘99
1995-2000 Dotcom bubble – Google, Amazon, Facebook: get over 600M visitors/year
1995 MP3 term coined for MP3 files, the earlier development of which stretches back into the ‘70s, where MP files themselves where developed throughout the ‘90s
1995 NSFNET shut down and handed everything over to the ISPs
1995 NSA publishes the SHA1 hash algorithm as part of its Digital Signature Standard.
1996, 2000 President Bill Clinton signing the Executive order 13026 transferring the commercial encryption from the Munition List to the Commerce Control List. This order permitted the United States Department of Commerce to implement rules that greatly simplified the export of proprietary and open source software containing cryptography, which they did in 2000 - The successful cracking of DES likely helped gather both political and technical support for more advanced encryption in the hands of ordinary citizens - NSA considers AES strong enough to protect information classified at the Top Secret level
1997 WAP, Wireless Access Point
1997 NSA researchers published how to mint e cash
1997 Adam Back – HashCash – used PoW – coins could only be used once
1997 Nick Szabo – smart contracts “Formalizing and Securing Relationships on Public Networks”
1998 OSS, Open-source software Initiative Founded
1998 Wei Dai – B-money – decentralized database to record txs
1998 First backdoor created by hackers from Cult of the Dead Cow
1998 Musk and Thiel founded PayPal
1998 Nick Szabo says crypto can protect land titles even if thugs take it by force – said it could be done with a timestamped database
1999 Much of the Glass-Steagal Act repealed - this saw US retail banks embark on big rounds of mergers and acquisitions and also engage in investment banking activities.
1999 Milton Friedman says, “I think that the Internet is going to be one of the major forces for reducing the role of government. The one thing that's missing, but that will soon be developed, is a reliable e-cash - a method whereby on the Internet you can transfer funds from A to B without A knowing B or B knowing A.”
1999 European banks began offering mobile banking with the first smartphones
1999 The Financial Services Modernization Act Allows Banks to Grow Even Larger
Many economists and politicians have recognized that this legislation played a key part in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007.
1999-2001 Napster, P2P file sharing – was one of the fastest growing businesses in history – bankrupt for paying musicians for copyright infringement
Every idea needs a face, even if the faces are illusory simplifications. The country you get is the president you get. The Yankees you get is the shortstop you get. Apple needed Jobs. ISIS needs al-Baghdadi. The moon shot belongs to Bezos. There's nothing under the Facebook sun that doesn't come back to Zuckerberg. submitted by
But there is, as yet, no face behind the bitcoin curtain. It's the currency you've heard about but haven't been able to understand. Still to this day nobody knows who created it. For most people, it has something to do with programmable cash and algorithms and the deep space of mathematics, but it also has something to do with heroin and barbiturates and the sex trade and bankruptcies, too. It has no face because it doesn't seem tangible or real. We might align it with an anarchist's riot mask or a highly conceptualized question mark, but those images truncate its reality. Certain economists say it's as important as the birth of the Internet, that it's like discovering ice. Others are sure that it's doomed to melt. In the political sphere, it is the darling of the cypherpunks and libertarians. When they're not busy ignoring it, it scares the living shit out of the big banks and credit-card companies.
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It sparked to life in 2008—when all the financial world prepared for itself the articulate noose—and it knocked on the door like some inconvenient relative arriving at the dinner party in muddy shoes and a knit hat. Fierce ideological battles are currently being waged among the people who own and shepherd the currency. Some shout, Ponzi scheme. Some shout, Gold dust. Bitcoin alone is worth billions of dollars, but the computational structure behind it—its blockchain and its sidechains—could become the absolute underpinning of the world's financial structure for decades to come.
What bitcoin has needed for years is a face to legitimize it, sanitize it, make it palpable to all the naysayers. But it has no Larry Ellison, no Elon Musk, no noticeable visionaries either with or without the truth. There's a lot of ideology at stake. A lot of principle and dogma and creed. And an awful lot of cash, too.
At 6:00 on a Wednesday winter morning, three months after launching Gemini, their bitcoin exchange, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss step out onto Broadway in New York, wearing the same make of sneakers, the same type of shorts, their baseball caps turned backward. They don't quite fall into the absolute caricature of twindom: They wear different-colored tops. Still, it's difficult to tell them apart, where Tyler ends and Cameron begins. Their faces are sculpted from another era, as if they had stepped from the ruin of one of Gatsby's parties. Their eyes are quick and seldom land on anything for long. Now thirty-four, there is something boyishly earnest about them as they jog down Prince Street, braiding in and out of each other, taking turns talking, as if they were working in shifts, drafting off each other.
Forget, for a moment, the four things the Winklevosses are most known for: suing Mark Zuckerberg, their portrayal in The Social Network, rowing in the Beijing Olympics, and their overwhelming public twinness. Because the Winklevoss brothers are betting just about everything—including their past—on a fifth thing: They want to shake the soul of money out.
At the deep end of their lives, they are athletes. Rowers. Full stop. And the thing about rowing—which might also be the thing about bitcoin—is that it's just about impossible to get your brain around its complexity. Everyone thinks you're going to a picnic. They have this notion you're out catching butterflies. They might ask you if you've got your little boater's hat ready. But it's not like that at all. You're fifteen years old. You rise in the dark. You drag your carcass along the railroad tracks before dawn. The boathouse keys are cold to the touch. You undo the ropes. You carry a shell down to the river. The carbon fiber rips at your hands. You place the boat in the water. You slip the oars in the locks. You wait for your coach. Nothing more than a thumb of light in the sky. It's still cold and the river stinks. That heron hasn't moved since yesterday. You hear Coach's voice before you see him. On you go, lads. You start at a dead sprint. The left rib's a little sore, but you don't say a thing. You are all power and no weight. The first push-to-pull in the water is a ripping surprise. From the legs first. Through the whole body. The arc. Atomic balance. A calm waiting for the burst. Your chest burns, your thighs scald, your brain blanks. It feels as if your rib cage might shatter. You are stillness exploding. You catch the water almost without breaking the surface. Coach says something about the pole vault. You like him. You really do. That brogue of his. Lads this, lads that. Fire. Stamina. Pain. After two dozen strokes, it already feels like you're hitting the wall. All that glycogen gone. Nobody knows. Nobody. They can't even pronounce it. Rowing. Ro-wing. Roh-ing. You push again, then pull. You feel as if you are breaking branch after branch off the bottom of your feet. You don't rock. You don't jolt. Keep it steady. Left, right, left, right. The heron stays still. This river. You see it every day. Nothing behind you. Everything in front. You cross the line. You know the exact tree. Your chest explodes. Your knees are trembling. This is the way the world will end, not with a whimper but a bang. You lean over the side of the boat. Up it comes, the breakfast you almost didn't have. A sign of respect to the river. You lay back. Ah, blue sky. Some cloud. Some gray. Do it again, lads. Yes, sir. You row so hard you puke it up once more. And here comes the heron, it's moving now, over the water, here it comes, look at that thing glide.
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The Winklevoss twins in the men's pair final during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. GETTY There's plenty of gin and beer and whiskey in the Harrison Room in downtown Manhattan, but the Winklevoss brothers sip Coca-Cola. The room, one of many in the newly renovated Pier A restaurant, is all mahogany and lamplight. It is, in essence, a floating bar, jutting four hundred feet out into the Hudson River. From the window you can see the Statue of Liberty. It feels entirely like their sort of room, a Jazz Age expectation hovering around their initial appearance—tall, imposing, the hair mannered, the collars of their shirts slightly tilted—but then they just slide into their seats, tentative, polite, even introverted.
They came here by subway early on a Friday evening, and they lean back in their seats, a little wary, their eyes busy—as if they want to look beyond the rehearsal of their words.
They had the curse of privilege, but, as they're keen to note, a curse that was earned. Their father worked to pay his way at a tiny college in backwoods Pennsylvania coal country. He escaped the small mining town and made it all the way to a professorship at Wharton. He founded his own company and eventually created the comfortable upper-middle-class family that came with it. They were raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, the most housebroken town on the planet. They might have looked like the others in their ZIP code, and dressed like them, spoke like them, but they didn't quite feel like them. Some nagging feeling—close to anger, close to fear—lodged itself beneath their shoulders, not quite a chip but an ache. They wanted Harvard but weren't quite sure what could get them there. "You have to be basically the best in the world at something if you're coming from Greenwich," says Tyler. "Otherwise it's like, great, you have a 1600 SAT, you and ten thousand others, so what?"
The rowing was a means to an end, but there was also something about the boat that they felt allowed another balance between them. They pulled their way through high school, Cameron on the port-side oar, Tyler on the starboard. They got to Harvard. The Square was theirs. They rowed their way to the national championships—twice. They went to Oxford. They competed in the Beijing Olympics. They sucked up the smog. They came in sixth place. The cameras loved them. Girls, too. They were so American, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, they could have been cast in a John Cougar Mellencamp song.
It might all have been so clean-cut and whitebread except for the fact that—at one of the turns in the river—they got involved in the most public brawl in the whole of the Internet's nascent history.
They don't talk about it much anymore, but they know that it still defines them, not so much in their own minds but in the minds of others. The story seems simple on one level, but nothing is ever simple, not even simplification. Theirs was the original idea for the first social network, Harvard Connection. They hired Mark Zuckerberg to build it. Instead he went off and created Facebook. They sued him. They settled for $65 million. It was a world of public spats and private anguish. Rumors and recriminations. A few years later, dusty old pre-Facebook text messages were leaked online by Silicon Alley Insider: "Yeah, I'm going to fuck them," wrote Zuckerberg to a friend. "Probably in the ear." The twins got their money, but then they believed they were duped again by an unfairly low evaluation of their stock. They began a second round of lawsuits for $180 million. There was even talk about the Supreme Court. It reeked of opportunism. But they wouldn't let it go. In interviews, they came across as insolent and splenetic, tossing their rattles out of the pram. It wasn't about the money, they said at the time, it was about fairness, reality, justice. Most people thought it was about some further agile fuckery, this time in Zuckerberg's ear.
There are many ways to tell the story, but perhaps the most penetrating version is that they weren't screwed so much by Zuckerberg as they were by their eventual portrayal in the film version of their lives. They appeared querulous and sulky, exactly the type of characters that America, peeling off the third-degree burns of the great recession, needed to hate. While the rest of the country worried about mounting debt and vanishing jobs, they were out there drinking champagne from, at the very least, Manolo stilettos. The truth would never get in the way of a good story. In Aaron Sorkin's world, and on just about every Web site, the blueblood trust-fund boys got what was coming to them. And the best thing now was for them to take their Facebook money and turn the corner, quickly, away, down toward whatever river would whisk them away.
Armie Hammer brilliantly portrayed them as the bluest of bloods in The Social Network. When the twins are questioned about those times now, they lean back a little in their seats, as if they've just lost a long race, a little perplexed that they came off as the victims of Hollywood's ability to throw an image, while the whole rip-roaring regatta still goes on behind them. "They put us in a box," says Cameron, "caricatured to a point where we didn't really exist." He glances around the bar, drums his finger against the glass. "That's fair enough. I understand that impulse." They smart a little when they hear Zuckerberg's name. "I don't think Mark liked being called an asshole," says Tyler, with a flick of bluster in his eyes, but then he catches himself. "You know, maybe Mark doesn't care. He's a bit of a statesman now, out there connecting the world. I have nothing against him. He's a smart guy."
These are men who've been taught, or have finally taught themselves, to tell their story rather than be told by it. But underneath the calm—just like underneath the boat—one can sense the churn.
They say the word—ath-letes—as if it were a country where pain is the passport. One of the things the brothers mention over and over again is that you can spontaneously crack a rib while rowing, just from the sheer exertion of the muscles hauling on the rib cage.
Along came bitcoin.
At its most elemental, bitcoin is a virtual currency. It's the sort of thing a five-year-old can understand—It's just e-cash, Mom—until he reaches eighteen and he begins to question the deep future of what money really means. It is a currency without government. It doesn't need a banker. It doesn't need a bank. It doesn't even need a brick to be built upon. Its supporters say that it bypasses the Man. It is less than a decade old and it has already come through its own Wild West, a story rooted in uncharted digital territory, up from the dust, an evening redness in the arithmetical West.
These are men who've been taught, or have finally taught themselves, to tell their story rather than be told by it. Bitcoin appeared in 2008—westward ho!—a little dot on the horizon of the Internet. It was the brainchild of a computer scientist named Satoshi Nakamoto. The first sting in the tale is that—to this very day—nobody knows who Nakamoto is, where he lives, or how much of his own invention he actually owns. He could be Californian, he could be Australian, he could even be a European conglomerate, but it doesn't really matter, since what he created was a cryptographic system that is borderless and supposedly unbreakable.
In the beginning the currency was ridiculed and scorned. It was money created from ones and zeros. You either bought it or you had to "mine" for it. If you were mining, your computer was your shovel. Any nerd could do it. You keyed your way in. By using your computer to help check and confirm the bitcoin transactions of others, you made coin. Everyone in this together. The computer heated up and mined, down down down, into the mathematical ground, lifting up numbers, making and breaking camp every hour or so until you had your saddlebags full of virtual coin. It all seemed a bit of a lark at first. No sheriff, no deputy, no central bank. The only saloon was a geeky chat room where a few dozen bitcoiners gathered to chew data.
Lest we forget, money was filthy in 2008.
The collapse was coming. The banks were shorting out. The real estate market was a confederacy of dunces. Bernie Madoff's shadow loomed. Occupy was on the horizon. And all those Wall Street yahoos were beginning to squirm.
Along came bitcoin like some Jesse James of the financial imagination. It was the biggest disruption of money since coins. Here was an idea that could revolutionize the financial world. A communal articulation of a new era. Fuck American Express. Fuck Western Union. Fuck Visa. Fuck the Fed. Fuck the Treasury. Fuck the deregulated thievery of the twenty-first century.
To the earliest settlers, bitcoin suggested a moral way out. It was a money created from the ground up, a currency of the people, by the people, for the people, with all government control extinguished. It was built on a solid base of blockchain technology where everyone participated in the protection of the code. It attracted anarchists, libertarians, whistle-blowers, cypherpunks, economists, extropians, geeks, upstairs, downstairs, left-wing, right-wing. Sure, it could be used by businesses and corporations, but it could also be used by poor people and immigrants to send money home, instantly, honestly, anonymously, without charge, with a click of the keyboard. Everyone in the world had access to your transaction, but nobody had to know your name. It bypassed the suits. All you needed to move money was a phone or a computer. It was freedom of economic action, a sort of anarchy at its democratic best, no rulers, just rules.
Bitcoin, to the original explorers, was a safe pass through the government-occupied valleys: Those assholes were up there in the hills, but they didn't have any scopes on their rifles, and besides, bitcoin went through in communal wagons at night.
Ordinary punters took a shot. Businesses, too. You could buy silk ties in Paris without any extra bank charges. You could protect your money in Buenos Aires without fear of a government grab.
The Winklevoss twins leave the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2011, after appearing in court to ask that the previous settlement case against Facebook be voided. GETTY But freedom can corrupt as surely as power. It was soon the currency that paid for everything illegal under the sun, the go-to money of the darknet. The westward ho! became the outlaw territory of Silk Road and beyond. Heroin through the mail. Cocaine at your doorstep. Child porn at a click. What better way for terrorists to ship money across the world than through a network of anonymous computers? Hezbollah, the Taliban, the Mexican cartels. In Central America, kidnappers began demanding ransom in bitcoin—there was no need for the cash to be stashed under a park bench anymore. Now everything could travel down the wire. Grab, gag, and collect. Uranium could be paid for in bitcoin. People, too. The sex trade was turned on: It was a perfect currency for Madame X. For the online gambling sites, bitcoin was pure jackpot.
For a while, things got very shady indeed. Over a couple years, the rate pinballed between $10 and $1,200 per bitcoin, causing massive waves and troughs of online panic and greed. (In recent times, it has begun to stabilize between $350 and $450.) In 2014, it was revealed that hackers had gotten into the hot wallet of Mt. Gox, a bitcoin exchange based in Tokyo. A total of 850,000 coins were "lost," at an estimated value of almost half a billion dollars. The founder of Silk Road, Ross William Ulbricht (known as "Dread Pirate Roberts"), got himself a four-by-six room in a federal penitentiary for life, not to mention pending charges for murder-for-hire in Maryland.
Everyone thought that bitcoin was the problem. The fact of the matter was, as it so often is, human nature was the problem. Money means desire. Desire means temptation. Temptation means that people get hurt.
During the first Gold Rush in the late 1840s, the belief was that all you needed was a pan and a decent pair of boots and a good dose of nerve and you could go out and make yourself a riverbed millionaire. Even Jack London later fell for the lure of it alongside thousands of others: the western test of manhood and the promise of wealth. What they soon found out was that a single egg could cost twenty-five of today's dollars, a pound of coffee went for a hundred, and a night in a whorehouse could set you back $6,000.
A few miners hit pay dirt, but what most ended up with for their troubles was a busted body and a nasty dose of syphilis.
The gold was discovered on the property of John Sutter in Sacramento, but the one who made the real cash was a neighboring merchant, Samuel Brannan. When Brannan heard the news of the gold nuggets, he bought up all the pickaxes and shovels he could find, filled a quinine bottle with gold dust, and went to San Francisco. Word went around like a prayer in a flash flood: gold gold gold. Brannan didn't wildcat for gold himself, but at the peak of the rush he was flogging $5,000 worth of shovels a day—that's $155,000 today—and went on to become the wealthiest man in California, alongside the Wells Fargo crew, Levi Strauss, and the Studebaker family, who sold wheelbarrows.
If you comb back through the Winklevoss family, you will find a great-grandfather and a great-great-grandfather who knew a thing or two about digging: They worked side by side in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. They didn't go west and they didn't get rich, but maybe the lesson became part of their DNA: Sometimes it's the man who sells the shovels who ends up hitting gold.
Like it or not—and many people don't like it—the Winklevoss brothers are shaping up to be the Samuel Brannans of the bitcoin world.
Nine months after being portrayed in The Social Network, the Winklevoss twins were back out on the water at the World Rowing Cup. CHRISTOPHER LEE/GETTY They heard about it first poolside in Ibiza, Spain. Later it would play into the idea of ease and privilege: umbrella drinks and girls in bikinis. But if the creation myth was going to be flippant, the talk was serious. "I'd say we were cautious, but we were definitely intrigued," says Cameron. They went back home to New York and began to read. There was something about it that got under their skin. "We knew that money had been so broken and inefficient for years," says Tyler, "so bitcoin appealed to us right away."
They speak in braided sentences, catching each other, reassuring themselves, tightening each other's ideas. They don't quite want to say that bitcoin looked like something that might be redemptive—after all, they, like everyone else, were looking to make money, lots of it, Olympic-sized amounts—but they say that it did strike an idealistic chord inside them. They certainly wouldn't be cozying up to the anarchists anytime soon, but this was a global currency that, despite its uncertainties, seemed to present a solution to some of the world's more pressing problems. "It was borderless, instantaneous, irreversible, decentralized, with virtually no transaction costs," says Tyler. It could possibly cut the banks out, and it might even take the knees out from under the credit-card companies. Not only that, but the price, at just under ten dollars per coin, was in their estimation low, very low. They began to snap it up.
They were aware, even at the beginning, that they might, once again, be called Johnny-come-latelys, just hopping blithely on the bandwagon—it was 2012, already four years into the birth of the currency—but they went ahead anyway, power ten. Within a short time they'd spent $11 million buying up a whopping 1 percent of the world's bitcoin, a position they kept up as more bitcoins were mined, making their 1 percent holding today worth about $66 million.
But bitcoin was flammable. The brothers felt the burn quickly. Their next significant investment came later that year, when they gave $1.5 million in venture funding to a nascent exchange called BitInstant. Within a year the CEO was arrested for laundering drug money through the exchange.
So what were a pair of smart, clean-cut Olympic rowers doing hanging around the edges of something so apparently shady, and what, if anything, were they going to do about it?
They mightn't have thought of it this way, but there was something of the sheriff striding into town, the one with the swagger and the scar, glancing up at the balconies as he comes down Main Street, all tumbleweeds and broken pianos. This place was a dump in most people's eyes, but the sheriff glimpsed his last best shot at finally getting the respect he thinks he deserves.
The money shot: A good stroke will catch the water almost without breaking its seal. You stir without rippling. Your silence is sinewy. There's muscle in that calm. The violence catches underneath, thrusts the boat along. Stroke after stroke. Just keep going. Today's truth dies tomorrow. What you have to do is elemental enough. You row without looking behind you. You keep the others in front of you. As long as you can see what they're doing, it's all in your hands. You are there to out-pain them. Doesn't matter who they are, where they come from, how they got here. Know your enemy through yourself. Push through toward pull. Find the still point of this pain. Cut a melody in the disk of your flesh. The only terror comes when they pass you—if they ever pass you.
There are no suits or ties, but there is a white hum in the offices of Gemini in the Flatiron District. The air feels as if it has been brushed clean. There is something so everywhereabout the place. Ergonomic chairs. iPhone portals. Rows of flickering computers. Not so much a hush around the room as a quiet expectation. Eight, nine people. Programmers, analysts, assistants. Other employees—teammates, they call them—dialing in from Portland, Oregon, and beyond.
The brothers fire up the room when they walk inside. A fist-pump here, a shoulder touch there. At the same time, there is something almost shy about them. Apart, they seem like casual visitors to the space they inhabit. It is when they're together that they feel fully shaped. One can't imagine them being apart from each other for very long.
The Winklevoss twins speak onstage at Bitcoin! Let's Cut Through the Noise Already at SXSW in 2016. GETTY They move from desk to desk. The price goes up, the price goes down. The phones ring. The e-mails beep. Customer-service calls. Questions about fees. Inquiries about tax structures.
Gemini was started in late 2015 as a next-generation bitcoin exchange. It is not the first such exchange in the world by any means, but it is one of the most watched. The company is designed with ordinary investors in mind, maybe a hedge fund, maybe a bank: all those people who used to be confused or even terrified by the word bitcoin. It is insured. It is clean. What's so fascinating about this venture is that the brothers are risking themselves by trying to eliminate risk: keeping the boat steady and exploding through it at the same time.
It is when they're together that they feel fully shaped. One can't imagine them being apart from each other for very long. For the past couple years, the Winklevosses have worked closely with just about every compliance agency imaginable. They ticked off all the regulatory boxes. Essentially they wanted to ease all the Debting Thomases. They put regulatory frameworks in place. Security and bankability and insurance were their highest objectives. Nobody was going to be able to blow open the safe. They wanted to soothe all the appetites for risk. They told Bitcoin Magazine they were asking for "permission, not forgiveness."
This is where bitcoin can become normal—that is, if you want bitcoin to be normal.
Just a mile or two down the road, in Soho, a half dozen bitcoiners gather at a meetup. The room is scruffy, small, boxy. A half mannequin is propped on a table, a scarf draped around it. It's the sort of place that twenty years ago would have been full of cigarette smoke. There's a bit of Allen Ginsberg here, a touch of Emma Goldman, a lot of Zuccotti Park. The wine is free and the talk is loose. These are the true believers. They see bitcoin in its clearest possible philosophical terms—the frictionless currency of the people, changing the way people move money around the world, bypassing the banks, disrupting the status quo.
A comedy show is being run out in the backyard. A scruffy young man wanders in and out, announcing over and over again that he is half-baked. A well-dressed Asian girl sidles up to the bar. She looks like she's just stepped out of an NYU business class. She's interested in discovering what bitcoin is. She is regaled by a series of convivial answers. The bartender tells her that bitcoin is a remaking of the prevailing power structures. The girl asks for another glass of wine. The bartender adds that bitcoin is democracy, pure and straight. She nods and tells him that the wine tastes like cooking oil. He laughs and says it wasn't bought with bitcoin. "I don't get it," she says. And so the evening goes, presided over by Margaux Avedisian, who describes herself as the queen of bitcoin. Avedisian, a digital-currency consultant of Armenian descent, is involved in several high-level bitcoin projects. She has appeared in documentaries and on numerous panels. She is smart, sassy, articulate.
When the talk turns to the Winklevoss brothers, the bar turns dark. Someone, somewhere, reaches up to take all the oxygen out of the air. Avedisian leans forward on the counter, her eyes shining, delightful, raged.
"The Winklevii are not the face of bitcoin," she says. "They're jokes. They don't know what they're saying. Nobody in our community respects them. They're so one-note. If you look at their exchange, they have no real volume, they never will. They keep throwing money at different things. Nobody cares. They're not part of us. They're just hangers-on."
"Ah, they're just assholes," the bartender chimes in.
"What they want to do," says Avedisian, "is lobotomize bitcoin, make it into something entirely vapid. They have no clue."
The Asian girl leaves without drinking her third glass of free wine. She's got a totter in her step. She doesn't quite get the future of money, but then again maybe very few in the world do.
Giving testimony on bitcoin licensing before the New York State Department of Financial Services in 2014. LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS The future of money might look like this: You're standing on Oxford Street in London in winter. You think about how you want to get to Charing Cross Road. The thought triggers itself through electrical signals into the chip embedded in your wrist. Within a moment, a driverless car pulls up on the sensor-equipped road. The door opens. You hop in. The car says hello. You tell it to shut up. It does. It already knows where you want to go. It turns onto Regent Street. You think,A little more air-conditioning, please. The vents blow. You think, Go a little faster, please. The pace picks up. You think, This traffic is too heavy, use Quick(TM). The car swings down Glasshouse Street. You think, Pay the car in front to get out of my way. It does. You think, Unlock access to a shortcut. The car turns down Sherwood Street to Shaftsbury Avenue. You pull in to Charing Cross. You hop out. The car says goodbye. You tell it to shut up again. You run for the train and the computer chip in your wrist pays for the quiet-car ticket for the way home.
All of these transactions—the air-conditioning, the pace, the shortcut, the bribe to get out of the way, the quick lanes, the ride itself, the train, maybe even the "shut up"—will cost money. As far as crypto-currency enthusiasts think, it will be paid for without coins, without phones, without glass screens, just the money coming in and going out of your preprogrammed wallet embedded beneath your skin.
The Winklevosses are betting that the money will be bitcoin. And that those coins will flow through high-end, corporate-run exchanges like Gemini rather than smoky SoHo dives.
Cameron leans across a table in a New York diner, the sort of place where you might want to polish your fork just in case, and says: "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." He can't remember whom the quote belongs to, but he freely acknowledges that it's not his own. Theirs is a truculent but generous intelligence, capable of surprise and turn at the oddest of moments. They talk meditation, they talk economics, they talk Van Halen, they talk, yes, William Gibson, but everything comes around again to bitcoin.
"The key to all this is that people aren't even going to know that they're using bitcoin," says Tyler. "It's going to be there, but it's not going to be exposed to the end user. Bitcoin is going to be the rails that underpin our payment systems. It's just like an IP address. We don't log on to a series of numbers, 115.425.5 or whatever. No, we log on to Google.com. In the same way, bitcoin is going to be disguised. There will be a body kit that makes it user-friendly. That's what makes bitcoin a kick-ass currency."
Any fool can send a billion dollars across the world—as long as they have it, of course—but it's virtually impossible to send a quarter unless you stick it in an envelope and pay forty-nine cents for a stamp. It's one of the great ironies of our antiquated money system. And yet the quark of the financial world is essentially the small denomination. What bitcoin promises is that it will enable people and businesses to send money in just about any denomination to one another, anywhere in the world, for next to nothing. A public address, a private key, a click of the mouse, and the money is gone.
A Bitcoin conference in New York City in 2014. GETTY This matters. This matters a lot. Credit-card companies can't do this. Neither can the big banks under their current systems. But Marie-Louise on the corner of Libertador Avenue can. And so can Pat Murphy in his Limerick housing estate. So can Mark Andreessen and Bill Gates and Laurene Powell Jobs. Anyone can do it, anywhere in the world, at virtually no charge.
You can do it, in fact, from your phone in a diner in New York. But the whole time they are there—over identical California omelettes that they order with an ironic shrug—they never once open their phones. They come across more like the talkative guys who might buy you a drink at the sports bar than the petulants ordering bottle service in the VIP corner. The older they get, the more comfortable they seem in their contradictions: the competition, the ease; the fame, the quiet; the gamble, the sure thing.
Bitcoin is what might eventually make them among the richest men in America. And yet. There is always a yet. What seems indisputable about the future of money, to the Winklevosses and other bitcoin adherents, is that the technology that underpins bitcoin—the blockchain—will become one of the fundamental tenets of how we deal with the world of finance. Blockchain is the core computer code. It's open source and peer to peer—in other words, it's free and open to you and me. Every single bitcoin transaction ever made goes to an open public ledger. It would take an unprecedented 51 percent attack—where one entity would come to control more than half of the computing power used to mine bitcoin—for hackers to undo it. The blockchain is maintained by computers all around the world, and its future sidechains will create systems that deal with contracts and stock and other payments. These sidechains could very well be the foundation of the new global economy for the big banks, the credit-card companies, and even government itself.
"It's boundless," says Cameron.
This is what the brothers are counting on—and what might eventually make them among the richest men in America.
And yet. There is always a yet.
When you delve into the world of bitcoin, it gets deeper, darker, more mysterious all the time. Why has its creator remained anonymous? Why did he drop off the face of the earth? How much of it does he own himself? Will banks and corporations try to bring the currency down? Why are there really only five developers with full "commit access" to the code (not the Winklevosses, by the way)? Who is really in charge of the currency's governance?
Perhaps the most pressing issue at hand is that of scaling, which has caused what amounts to a civil war among followers. A maximum block size of one megabyte has been imposed on the chain, sort of like a built-in artificial dampener to keep bitcoin punk rock. That's not nearly enough capacity for the number of transactions that would take place in future visions. In years to come, there could be massive backlogs and outages that could create instant financial panic. Bitcoin's most influential leaders are haggling over what will happen. Will bitcoin maintain its decentralized status, or will it go legit and open up to infinite transactions? And if it goes legit, where's the punk?
The issues are ongoing—and they might very well take bitcoin down, but the Winklevosses don't think so. They have seen internal disputes before. They've refrained from taking a public stance mostly because they know that there are a lot of other very smart people in bitcoin who are aware that crisis often builds consensus. "We're in this for the long haul," says Tyler. "We're the first batter in the first inning."
GILLIAN LAUB The waiter comes across and asks them, bizarrely, if they're twins. They nod politely. Who was born first? They've heard it a million times and their answer is always the same: Neither of them—they were born cesarean. Cameron looks older, says the waiter. Tyler grins. Normally it's the other way around, says Cameron, grinning back. Do you ever fight? asks the waiter. Every now and then, they say. But not over this, not over the future.
Heraclitus was wrong. You can, in fact, step in the same river twice. In the beginning you went to the shed. No electricity there, no heat, just a giant tub where you simulated the river. You could only do eleven strokes. But there was something about the repetition, the difference, even the monotony, that hooked you. After a while it wasn't an abandoned shed anymore. College gyms, national training centers. Bigger buildings. High ceilings. AC. Doctors and trainers. Monitors hooked up to your heart, your head, your blood. Six foot five, but even then you were not as tall as the other guys. You liked the notion of underdog. Everyone called you the opposite. The rich kids. The privileged ones. To hell with that. They don't know us, who we are, where we came from. Some of the biggest chips rest on the shoulders of those with the least to lose. Six foot five times two makes just about thirteen feet. You sit in the erg and you stare ahead. Day in, day out. One thousand strokes, two thousand. You work with the very best. You even train with the Navy SEALs. It touches that American part of you. The sentiment, the false optimism. When the oil fields are burning, you even think, I'll go there with them. But you stay in the boat. You want that other flag rising. That's what you aim for. You don't win but you get close. Afterward there are planes, galas, regattas, magazine spreads, but you always come back to that early river. The cold. The fierceness. The heron. Like it or not, you're never going to get off the water—that's just the fact of the matter, it's always going to be there. Hard to admit it, but once you were wrong. You got out of the boat and you haggled over who made it. You lost that one, hard. You might lose this one, too, but then again it just might be the original arc that you're stepping toward. So you return, then. You rise before dark. You drag your carcass along Broadway before dawn.
All the rich men in the world want to get shot into outer space. Richard Branson. Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. The new explorers. To get the hell out of here and see if they—and maybe we—can exist somewhere else for a while. It's the story of the century. We want to know if the pocket of the universe can be turned inside out. We're either going to bring all the detritus of the world upward with us or we're going to find a brand-new way to exist. The cynical say that it's just another form of colonization—they're probably right, but then again maybe it's our only way out.
The Winklevosses have booked their tickets—numbers 700 and 701—on Branson's Virgin Galactic. Although they go virtually everywhere together, the twins want to go on different flights because of the risk involved: Now that they're in their mid-thirties, they can finally see death, or at least its rumor. It's a boy's adventure, but it's also the outer edge of possibility. It cost a quarter of a million dollars per seat, and they paid for it, yes, in bitcoin.
Of course, up until recently, the original space flights all splashed down into the sea. One of the ships that hauled the Gemini space capsule out of the water in 1965 was the Intrepid aircraft carrier.
The Winklevosses no longer pull their boat up the river. Instead they often run five miles along the Hudson to the Intrepid and back. The destroyer has been parked along Manhattan's West Side for almost as long as they have been alive. It's now a museum. The brothers like the boat, its presence, its symbolism: Intrepid, Gemini, the space shot.
They ease into the run.
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