Bitcoin’s Wild Decade: An Early Developer Reflects

Satoshi Nakamoto’s original bitcoin white paper “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” was published 10 years ago this month. To celebrate its anniversary, BREAKER is publishing a series of contributions from early developers and pioneers. Here Jeff Garzik, now CEO of Bloq, a blockchain development studio, reflects on how he became involved with the project. 

In 2010, vacant plots around Raleigh, North Carolina seemed like excellent places to hack in peace. For about $1,000, I purchased a 1984 Fleetwood Southwind RV to go on one of these plots of land. Thus, a hacker’s monastery was born—a live-work environment that evoked the lair of a William Gibson-esque anti-hero. Just me and the world-in-a-window universe that was unfolding beyond.

Then “The Great Slashdotting” happened.

Back then, the collaborative online news aggregator Slashdot was an essential part of many geeks’ information diet. (“News for Nerds. Stuff That Matters,” it promised.) Though less popular than in the 1990s, it still held together thanks to a passionate group of submitters and curators. To be “slashdotted” meant that an inbound link caused your website to buckle under the load until it became unavailable, essentially loving your content into a slow, grinding death—like a denial-of-service attack, but for all the right reasons.

Jeff Garzik

That is what happened to when it announced version 0.3 of the bitcoin software in July 2010. This was nearly two years after Satoshi Nakamoto fired the starting pistol of the cryptocurrency revolution with the Halloween 2008 white paper and more than a year after the first (or “genesis”) block of the bitcoin blockchain was written. During that time, bitcoin’s earliest volunteers toiled in a passionate obscurity. The Slashdot post was how many of us discovered the project, not the mailing list posting that is often cited.

Related: Desperately Seeking Satoshi: The Continuing Quest for Bitcoin’s Creator 

The post was intriguing enough to warrant downloading bitcoin’s open source code. For those who understood distributed computing’s capabilities and limitations, initial skepticism was normal. In a distributed computing environment, one could already unplug any server in a cluster and the cluster would rebalance, retaining data intact. “What’s the big deal with bitcoin’s version of distributed computing, then?,” we wondered. Skepticism led to curiosity. Curiosity led to revelation. Satoshi had invented what many had seen as impossible: a truly decentralized multi-node computing cluster.

While much has been made about Satoshi’s anonymity, it was crucial to ensure that participants in the bitcoin project focused on the code rather than the person.

Probing the system revealed that Satoshi had improved upon a distributed computing concept called “leader election”—the process by which a node is chosen to direct the other nodes. In Satoshi’s vision, this was accomplished through so-called “proof-of-work,” which assumes that the most complete list of transactions necessarily comes from whoever has a functioning majority of processing power.

The best part: anyone could contribute.

The Cause

As a Linux kernel developer employed by Red Hat—probably the best-known company alongside IBM to professionalize the famously free-as-in-speech-and-beer Linux operating system—I was already familiar with how open-source software was produced. I was a “maintainer” who looked after the care-and-feeding of two specific aspects of the Linux operating system: the controller for the hardware Ethernet port and a subsystem for connecting data storage devices. These were certainly important parts of Linux, but these duties still left me with a lot of time to hack on other projects. Fortunately, Red Hat didn’t mind. It was in their overall best interests to be seen as employing engineers who were contributing to the most ambitious open source projects. I was paid to be me.

Early bitcoin contributors and community members would only know Satoshi through his contributions on mailing lists and forums. While much has been made about Satoshi’s anonymity, it was crucial to ensure that participants in the bitcoin project focused on the code rather than the person. This encouraged volunteers to rely on trusting the objective reality of the code, rather than whether the project leader had the conventional bona fides.

Satoshi was practical and sane, which made interactions very easy and comfortable. Satoshi tended to avoid protracted philosophical discussions and political arguments, even as our community began to attract crypto-anarchists, goldbugs, Fed-hating libertarians, and others who saw their views reflected in the bitcoin project. Satoshi tended to show a great level of restraint and ability to take a long view, as when Satoshi resisted the calls for bitcoin to market itself as a funding mechanism for Wikileaks after PayPal famously froze its account. This, Satoshi argued, would only bring down legal and regulatory hammers that much faster.

Satoshi was the sole gatekeeper for changes in the very beginning, which was certainly familiar to me. Linus Torvalds, the original Linux author, worked more or less the same way. As with Linux, all contributors had to wait patiently for the next release version from the project leader. If your proposed change was rejected, you rarely knew exactly why. Maybe it conflicted with another change? Maybe it was missed in the flood of emailed—yes, emailed—proposals? Maybe you’d find out why. Maybe you wouldn’t. If you went in with the right spirit, though, you didn’t care. The high you’d get when the project leader accepted your patch was absolutely unbeatable, making up for any past frustrations along the way.

Satoshi was regarded as “BDFL”: Benevolent Dictator For Life.

There was very little drama when a new feature was introduced. No one talked about hard forks and soft forks—terms that would later drive wedges between system design philosophies and, it must be said, a few friendships. If there were some elements in the script language that were found to be buggy, Satoshi would post a new version and that was that. Like Torvalds, Satoshi was regarded as “BDFL”: Benevolent Dictator For Life.

That said, a system as different as bitcoin required a different kind of BDFL. One example was when a bug emerged early on that created 184 million bitcoin, or nearly nine times as much as was ever supposed to be minted. There was no waiting for quality assurance. No early alpha testers. No beta testers.

But I thrived in this environment. My initial role was a jack-of-all-trades problem-solver and one of my earliest focuses in bitcoin was a fix that everyone was waiting on: how to speed up one’s initial download of the bitcoin blockchain. Still in use today, this code increased the speed of the initial download by 10x-100x, making bitcoin more accessible to everyone. I would later contribute the “cpuminer” code, and one of the first mining pool servers, remnants of which are still found in the technology stacks of large mining operations.

Present and Future

Bitcoin will continue to live a long life and evolve in ways we cannot predict, which was always the path we anticipated. It has successfully navigated the transition from a single miner for most of 2009 to the full-on industry that we have today. In the decade since the paper was published, bitcoin became so much more than just the magic internet money of the fringe libertarians, the conspiracy theorists, and the cypherpunks. We talk about it and its underlying technology on national television, discuss it earnestly at conferences, muse about it in our living rooms, and debate it in chambers of power across the globe.

I not only believe in Satoshi’s vision but I founded a company on the strong belief that he provided the fundamental technologies and philosophies that will help improve business, commerce, and indeed society at large. A decade after Satoshi released the bitcoin white paper, our world is grappling with how this technology fits in—and this is only the beginning.