The first decentralized cryptocurrency, bitcoin, was created in 2009 by pseudonymous developer Satoshi Nakamoto. It used SHA-256, a cryptographic hash function, as its proof-of-work scheme. In April 2011, Namecoin was created as an attempt at forming a decentralized DNS, which would make internet censorship very difficult. Soon after, in October 2011, Litecoin was released. It was the first successful cryptocurrency to use scrypt as its hash function instead of SHA-256. Another notable cryptocurrency, Peercoin was the first to use a proof-of-work/proof-of-stake hybrid.
The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted. As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.
Wallets and similar software technically handle all bitcoins as equivalent, establishing the basic level of fungibility. Researchers have pointed out that the history of each bitcoin is registered and publicly available in the blockchain ledger, and that some users may refuse to accept bitcoins coming from controversial transactions, which would harm bitcoin's fungibility. For example, in 2012, Mt. Gox froze accounts of users who deposited bitcoins that were known to have just been stolen.
But while cryptocurrencies are more used for payment, its use as a means of speculation and a store of value dwarfs the payment aspects. Cryptocurrencies gave birth to an incredibly dynamic, fast-growing market for investors and speculators. Exchanges like Okcoin, Poloniex or shapeshift enables the trade of hundreds of cryptocurrencies. Their daily trade volume exceeds that of major European stock exchanges.
Cryptocurrencies are digital gold. Sound money that is secure from political influence. Money that promises to preserve and increase its value over time. Cryptocurrencies are also a fast and comfortable means of payment with a worldwide scope, and they are private and anonymous enough to serve as a means of payment for black markets and any other outlawed economic activity.
Physical wallets can also take the form of metal token coins with a private key accessible under a security hologram in a recess struck on the reverse side.:38 The security hologram self-destructs when removed from the token, showing that the private key has been accessed. Originally, these tokens were struck in brass and other base metals, but later used precious metals as bitcoin grew in value and popularity.:80 Coins with stored face value as high as ₿1000 have been struck in gold.:102–104 The British Museum's coin collection includes four specimens from the earliest series:83 of funded bitcoin tokens; one is currently on display in the museum's money gallery. In 2013, a Utahn manufacturer of these tokens was ordered by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to register as a money services business before producing any more funded bitcoin tokens.:80
“If the trend continues, the average person will not be able to afford to purchase one whole bitcoin in 2 years. As global economies inflate and markets exhibit signs of recession, the world will turn to Bitcoin as a hedge against fiat turmoil and an escape against capital controls. Bitcoin is the way out, and cryptocurrency as a whole is never going away, it’s going to grow in use and acceptance as it matures.”
On 1 August 2017, a hard fork of bitcoin was created, known as Bitcoin Cash. Bitcoin Cash has a larger block size limit and had an identical blockchain at the time of fork. On 24 October 2017 another hard fork, Bitcoin Gold, was created. Bitcoin Gold changes the proof-of-work algorithm used in mining, as the developers felt that mining had become too specialized.
Bitcoin is pseudonymous, meaning that funds are not tied to real-world entities but rather bitcoin addresses. Owners of bitcoin addresses are not explicitly identified, but all transactions on the blockchain are public. In addition, transactions can be linked to individuals and companies through "idioms of use" (e.g., transactions that spend coins from multiple inputs indicate that the inputs may have a common owner) and corroborating public transaction data with known information on owners of certain addresses. Additionally, bitcoin exchanges, where bitcoins are traded for traditional currencies, may be required by law to collect personal information. To heighten financial privacy, a new bitcoin address can be generated for each transaction.
Using Ethereum’s “Turing complete” smart contract language, Solidity, developers are able to deploy a set of instructions to the blockchain that operate indefinitely with a high degree of finality and fraud-resistance. With the first block being mined in July 2015, Ethereum has since become the largest smart contract platform of its kind, and the second largest blockchain of all time as measured by market capitalization.