Ten years ago, a programmer with a made-up name released a white paper describing a new technology with a primary application of private money. The release was rather unorthodox. It didn’t come from an academic department, a central office of a bank, or an official institution. It was released into the commons, and it was followed two months later by the released of the protocol itself.
One of the beautiful aspects of Bitcoin is that the creator is still unknown. “Satoshi Nakamoto” is a pseudonym. I like it that way. Too often with big inventions in history, there are names attached that get an unjust share of the credit, often because their names appear on the patent records. This has created a false narrative of history.
Think of all the mythmaking surrounding people like Eli Whitney, the Wright Brothers, and Thomas Edison. Awesome folks but their contributions have been wildly overrated compared with others working on the same projects at the same time. There is still controversy about precisely who was first in flight.
Bitcoin is different. Its technology was given to the world, eschewing both “intellectual property” and commercial paywalls. And that name! It’s so strange sounding and now legendary all the more so because no one knows precisely who it is. Some have even tried to claim to be The One, but such a claim seems disqualifying on its face. Satoshi appeared and then disappeared. I want to leave it that way forever.
That said, articles seeking to prove the identity of his/her/they are impossible not to read. So I devoured one of the most comprehensive arguments I’ve read to date, appearing in a private newsletter called CounterMarkets, by programmer and writer Vin Armani. He makes a strong case that the real Satoshi is Hal Finney (1956-2014). Finney has long been on the short-list of would-be Satoshis. He was certainly there at the time, had shown a long interest in digital money, had ideological motivation, and had the technical skill.
Hal Finney is unique among the group in that, at every step of Satoshi’s involvement with Bitcoin, “Hal was there.” Hal was on the cryptography mailing list where Satoshi posted both the white paper and the initial client software. Hal was a participant in both threads. No other “suspected Satoshi” participated in those threads. Hal was the first person other than Satoshi to run the Bitcoin client software. In other words, Hal was the first miner besides Satoshi. Hal was the first recipient of a Bitcoin transaction. In fact Satoshi didn’t even send a test transaction to himself before sending one to Hal…. Hal was the first contributor of code (including bug fixes in the first week) to the project Satoshi. Hal was the last individual Satoshi specifically responded to on the BitcoinTalk forum before he vanished. In my opinion, one of the most interesting times that “Hal was there” is the case of Crypto Twitter. Hal – and only Hal – was there at the beginning of Crypto Twitter.
It’s starting to look pretty darn compelling right? Indeed. But this is the problem with this type of theorizing and why conspiracy theories of all sorts can become black holes. If you state your conclusion up front and then seek out the evidence, everything starts to look like proof.
I recall when my old friend Joe Sobran was hot on the trail of the real identity of Shakespeare. He would invite me over to his house and go on for hours showing all his evidence that it was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He made an incredibly convincing case. So I asked a genuine Shakespeare scholar who I trust, who put his hand on his forehead and shook his head, saying simply “That’s completely ridiculous. Shakespeare is Shakespeare.”
Well, ok. Maybe we should do the same to these claims about Satoshi. Still, we can’t stop looking. On the point about the tweets, it is interesting that:
On the evening of January 10th, 2009, Hal Finney took to Twitter and the word “bitcoin” entered that social network’s database for the first time. Hal proclaimed to the world, in a simple 2-word tweet, that he was “Running bitcoin.” Hal spoke about this moment in a sort of “farewell post” on the BitcoinTalk forums in 2013. “When Satoshi announced the first release of the software,” [he wrote, “I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test.”
There were two additional tweets from Finney, and Armani makes the case that both reinforce the point. As to motive for Finney’s creation of a sockpuppet, it is rather obvious that the inventor of a new private money for the world, one that could in principle displace central banks and every government money-printing machine in the world, would want to remain anonymous.
Further, as a second developer of PGP after Paul Zimmerman, Finney was there during the incredible controversy about this encryption software, how the US government tried to shut it down and how MIT bravely published the code in a book as a statement for free speech. More than anyone, Finney knew that governments would forever resist the new reality that our most exciting products and technologies in the future would be built of code, which is to say, speech, which is to say ideas. Nothing is more dangerous to the powers that be.
Even given his known status, Finney himself was subjected to terrible blackmailing schemes and worse.
But Armani goes further in his defense of anonymity: “By creating Satoshi, Hal could introduce Bitcoin without threat to his reputation, should Bitcoin turn out to have some fatal flaw. By appearing to support Bitcoin, Hal, a well-respected ‘cryptographic graybeard’ could make the project seem more attractive than even if Hal had released it himself.”
Finney died in 2014 of ALS. Here is a note he wrote on March 19, 2013 (I was seriously interested in Bitcoin at this point):
When Satoshi announced Bitcoin on the cryptography mailing list, he got a skeptical reception at best. Cryptographers have seen too many grand schemes by clueless noobs. They tend to have a knee jerk reaction.
I was more positive. I had long been interested in cryptographic payment schemes. Plus I was lucky enough to meet and extensively correspond with both Wei Dai and Nick Szabo, generally acknowledged to have created ideas that would be realized with Bitcoin. I had made an attempt to create my own proof of work based currency, called RPOW. So I found Bitcoin facinating.
When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them.
Today, Satoshi's true identity has become a mystery. But at the time, I thought I was dealing with a young man of Japanese ancestry who was very smart and sincere. I've had the good fortune to know many brilliant people over the course of my life, so I recognize the signs.
After a few days, bitcoin was running pretty stably, so I left it running. Those were the days when difficulty was 1, and you could find blocks with a CPU, not even a GPU. I mined several blocks over the next days. But I turned it off because it made my computer run hot, and the fan noise bothered me. In retrospect, I wish I had kept it up longer, but on the other hand I was extraordinarily lucky to be there at the beginning. It's one of those glass half full half empty things.
The next I heard of Bitcoin was late 2010, when I was surprised to find that it was not only still going, bitcoins actually had monetary value. I dusted off my old wallet, and was relieved to discover that my bitcoins were still there. As the price climbed up to real money, I transferred the coins into an offline wallet, where hopefully they'll be worth something to my heirs.
Speaking of heirs, I got a surprise in 2009, when I was suddenly diagnosed with a fatal disease. I was in the best shape of my life at the start of that year, I'd lost a lot of weight and taken up distance running. I'd run several half marathons, and I was starting to train for a full marathon. I worked my way up to 20+ mile runs, and I thought I was all set. That's when everything went wrong.
My body began to fail. I slurred my speech, lost strength in my hands, and my legs were slow to recover. In August, 2009, I was given the diagnosis of ALS, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, after the famous baseball player who got it.
ALS is a disease that kills moter neurons, which carry signals from the brain to the muscles. It causes first weakness, then gradually increasing paralysis. It is usually fatal in 2 to 5 years. My symptoms were mild at first and I continued to work, but fatigue and voice problems forced me to retire in early 2011. Since then the disease has continued its inexorable progression.
Today, I am essentially paralyzed. I am fed through a tube, and my breathing is assisted through another tube. I operate the computer using a commercial eyetracker system. It also has a speech synthesizer, so this is my voice now. I spend all day in my power wheelchair. I worked up an interface using an arduino so that I can adjust my wheelchair's position using my eyes.
It has been an adjustment, but my life is not too bad. I can still read, listen to music, and watch TV and movies. I recently discovered that I can even write code. It's very slow, probably 50 times slower than I was before. But I still love programming and it gives me goals.
Today his Bitcoin stash would make him worth $6 billion in crypto alone. Those in control of the private keys have access, and the world is watching to see when or if they ever move. They may never. I rather hope that they stay where they are and that the identity of Satoshi always remains a mystery.
All truly great innovation is crowdsourced. Genius is individual but no one person contains within himself or herself the intellectual capacity for creating anything truly meaningful from the ground up. That applies to music, products, ideas, and transformative software.
Indeed, in one of his last notes before disappearing, Satoshi wrote: “I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure, the press just turns that into a pirate currency angle. Maybe instead make it about the open source project and give more credit to your dev contributors;it helps motivate them.”
That’s beautiful and perfect. Satoshi is Satoshi, no more, no less.
P.S. for those interested in more of Vin Armani’s documentation, he has posted this file.
A version of this article ran in Forbes