A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual currency designed to work as a medium of exchange. It uses cryptography to secure and verify transactions as well as to control the creation of new units of a particular cryptocurrency. Essentially, cryptocurrencies are limited entries in a database that no one can change unless specific conditions are fulfilled.
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.
In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules due to a bug in version 0.8 of the bitcoin software. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history from the moment of the split. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software, selecting the backward compatible version of the blockchain. As a result, this blockchain became the longest chain and could be accepted by all participants, regardless of their bitcoin software version. During the split, the Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37 before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations. In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours. The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days. On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US. On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration listed ₿11.02 as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881.[better source needed] This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin. The FBI seized about ₿30,000 in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht. These bitcoins were sold at blind auction by the United States Marshals Service to venture capital investor Tim Draper. Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015. On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins. After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped, and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services. Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.
In 2016 a decentralized autonomous organization called The DAO, a set of smart contracts developed on the platform, raised a record US$150 million in a crowdsale to fund the project. The DAO was exploited in June when US$50 million in ether were taken by an unknown hacker. The event sparked a debate in the crypto-community about whether Ethereum should perform a contentious "hard fork" to reappropriate the affected funds. As a result of the dispute, the network split in two. Ethereum (the subject of this article) continued on the forked blockchain, while Ethereum Classic continued on the original blockchain. The hard fork created a rivalry between the two networks.
As a cryptocurrency attracts more interest, mining becomes harder and the amount of coins received as a reward decreases. For example, when Bitcoin was first created, the reward for successful mining was 50 BTC. Now, the reward stands at 12.5 Bitcoins. This happened because the Bitcoin network is designed so that there can only be a total of 21 mln coins in circulation.
The validity of each cryptocurrency's coins is provided by a blockchain. A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a hash pointer as a link to a previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. By design, blockchains are inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is "an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way". For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.
In cryptocurrency networks, mining is a validation of transactions. For this effort, successful miners obtain new cryptocurrency as a reward. The reward decreases transaction fees by creating a complementary incentive to contribute to the processing power of the network. The rate of generating hashes, which validate any transaction, has been increased by the use of specialized machines such as FPGAs and ASICs running complex hashing algorithms like SHA-256 and Scrypt. This arms race for cheaper-yet-efficient machines has been on since the day the first cryptocurrency, bitcoin, was introduced in 2009. With more people venturing into the world of virtual currency, generating hashes for this validation has become far more complex over the years, with miners having to invest large sums of money on employing multiple high performance ASICs. Thus the value of the currency obtained for finding a hash often does not justify the amount of money spent on setting up the machines, the cooling facilities to overcome the enormous amount of heat they produce, and the electricity required to run them.