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A Key Insight For the Blockchain Came in 1991

Sead Fadilpašić
Last updated: | 1 min read

When Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin, published the founding document of Bitcoin in 2008, it had just eight citations of previous works. Three of them were papers co-authored by physicists Scott Stornetta and Stuart Haber, and published in 1991-1997.

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Bitcoin’s roots lie in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology known for its security and immutability. Back when blockchain was first thought of, the endgame was not to revolutionize the world of money, but to secure the past and safeguard our knowledge of it, in essay published on the Wall Street Journal writes Amy Whitaker, an assistant professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

According to her, Stornetta and Haber had been trying to come up with a solution for the danger of having files, stored on personal computers, tampered with: having seen how simple that would be, they realized the inherent danger of such a situation. Apparently, Dr. Stornetta got his idea at an ice-cream place while with his family: instead of having to trust a central authority, the system could have many dispersed but interconnected copies of a shared ledger.

Together with Dr. Haber, he set out to find a cryptographically secure archive – a way to verify records without revealing their contents. In a paper from 1991, titled “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document” and published in the Journal of Cryptography, they explained their idea. However, their patent lapsed in 2004, four years before the inception of Bitcoin.

Still, the two scientists are not regretting keeping that patent and potentially making big money out of it: Dr. Haber says, “It was an interesting little paper that turned into a company – which I didn’t expect – and then I went back to being a research scientist.” Dr. Stornetta, meanwhile, says he would have donated any profits to nonprofit blockchain research companies.

Satoshi Nakamoto went on to revolutionize this existing blockchain technology by adding the concept of mining, by creating financial incentives for participation in retaining and verifying parts of the blockchain ledger. Still – its original purpose was to remember the past.