The History of Bitcoin, the First Cryptocurrency

The concept of cryptocurrency has been around for about 40 years. Since that idea first became a reality in 2009 (through the creation of Bitcoin), its trading history has been volatile, but it's also been an exhilarating ride for many investors.Driven by continued rising interest from the next generation of investors, it remains one of the most hotly debated global financial topics, with 2024 adding more marquee news headlines. Some key moments in cryptocurrency's timeline include:

  • In 1983, David Chaum, an American cryptographer published a concept for anonymous electronic money he called eCash. His vision came to life in 1989 through the company he founded called Digicash. He launched his concept in a single bank, but it failed to attract enough users. His test bank was purchased by a large credit card issuer and he dissolved the company in 1998.
  • In 2009, Bitcoin (BTC) was created, becoming the first truly decentralized cryptocurrency.
  • In 2013, Forbes named Bitcoin the year's best investment. 
  • In 2014, Bloomberg countered with its proclamation of Bitcoin being the year's worst investment. 
  • In October 2021, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved ProShares Bitcoin Strategy (ticker: BITO), the first U.S. Bitcoin futures exchange-traded fund.
  • In November 2022, FTX – the leading cryptocurrency exchange by trading volume – declared bankruptcy.
  • In January 2024, the Securities and Exchange Commission approved the first 11 spot Bitcoin ETFs, simplifying investors' access to crypto markets. 

How Bitcoin Started

Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency created and is now the most valuable and well known. It was launched in January 2009 by a computer programmer – or group of programmers – using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Nakamoto's actual identity has never been verified.A 2008 white paper by Bitcoin's mysterious creator revealed the blockchain system that would be the backbone of the cryptocurrency market. A blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is replicated and distributed across a network of computer systems to secure information.

Bitcoin Core Concepts

Block. A block is a group of Bitcoin transactions over a certain period. The transactions are verified by "miners" who are financially rewarded for verifying the transactions with newly created BTC.

Bitcoin units. Each Bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places. A millibitcoin (mBTC) is 1/1,000th of a Bitcoin. The smallest unit is a satoshi (sat), which is 1/100,000,000th of a Bitcoin.

Transaction. A computer directive styled as "payer X sends Y Bitcoin to receiver Z."

Blockchain. Each transaction forms an unbroken link on the chain. This transparent, public chain is what allows Bitcoin to exist and be usable. All blocks of transactions are linked to previous blocks of transactions, forming the etymology for the word "blockchain.

Mining. Independent individuals or groups complete complex and costly computer calculations to create a block.

Block hash. Mining activities incorporate a record-keeping service that keeps the blockchain consistent, complete and unalterable. The hashes validate available Bitcoin and serve as a means of uniformly rewarding the miners.

Blockchain address. A sequence of 25 to 34 alphanumeric characters. This is the information that is given to other parties so they know where to send the coins. They are considered anonymous because, while the blockchain itself is public, the address shields personally identifiable information. Cryptocurrency exchanges may be required by law to collect personally identifiable information, but each transaction can be associated with a different Bitcoin address to maintain privacy.

Wallet. Any individual or entity wishing to exchange Bitcoin (and not store them on an exchange in someone else's custody) must create a digital collection of the credentials, known as a wallet, necessary to transact coins.

  • Full clients. This is a wallet that includes a full copy of the entire blockchain. This is the safest form of storage other than offline, or "cold storage," but it requires substantial digital space.
  • Lightweight clients. This is a wallet that includes a more limited version of the blockchain to enable it to be portable on devices, such as a smartphone. Since the entire blockchain is not available, a party using a lightweight wallet must trust intermediaries who have full wallets.
  • Keys. These are the private credentials stored in the wallet. Like a safe-deposit box, to access the value held within a wallet, an individual must have a private key. Keys are alphanumeric.
    • Public keys. This is the technology necessary to encrypt and decrypt transactions. It is "one way," meaning that it easily unlocks transactions, but it can't be used to reverse the transaction. This key enables the blockchain to be uninterrupted.
    • Private keys. This is the passcode that transacting parties initiate so that the transaction is unique to themselves. To spend Bitcoin, one must know their own private key and digitally sign the transaction. The party's signature is verified by the public key without revealing the private key.

If the party loses its key, the Bitcoin in the wallet becomes essentially worthless, as it is unrecognizable and inaccessible to anyone. According to Chainalysis, a blockchain analytics company, roughly 20% of Bitcoins have been lost by parties who misplaced the private key. Additionally, if the private key is revealed in a security breach, the Bitcoin held within it can be stolen. In 2022, cryptocurrency investors lost a record $3.8 billion to hackers.

Cold storage. Private keys are stored offline to help avoid losing them or exposing them to a security breach.

Bitcoin Adoption and Controversy

Bitcoin supporters note that more and more institutions, countries and platforms are accepting the digital currency. In the U.S., however, its main value currently is as an investment.Some proponents continue to hold out hope for Bitcoin to become a global reserve currency, and the U.S. is taking initial steps to explore the viability of cryptocurrency on a federal level. In March 2022, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to examine the necessary regulation and oversight of digital assets, as well as considering a U.S. Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC), a digital version of the dollar. The whole-of-government order also directs the U.S. to take a leadership role in instilling U.S. values around financial stability, data privacy and human rights in international digital initiatives.While some countries, most notably China, have banned cryptocurrency mining and trading, many countries are embracing it fully:

  • Crypto has funded both sides of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Crypto is prized due to its decentralized nature, where quick transactions are useful to get money into conflict areas for both humanitarian needs and military support. Ukraine posted two crypto wallets at the beginning of the Russian invasion to raise funds, attracting more than $56 million within the first month. Russia has raised about 1/10th of that amount. 
  • El Salvador adopted Bitcoin as its legal tender in 2021. As the first country to do so, it itends to resolve deep economic woes and prevent the risks that come with a weak national currency. Initial enthusiasm by Salvadorians was lackluster. The country lost an estimated $40 million of its investment. Officials doubled down, mandating cryptocurrency literacy courses in public schools beginning in 2024. El Salvador's dedication to the concept is paying off. President Nayib Bukele disclosed that the country has moved about $400 million into a cold wallet and placed it into an in-country physical vault in early March 2024. This reflected a doubling of the country's known account and includes assets acquired through the government's new Freedom passport.
  • Iran has found Bitcoin to be an effective method to bypass U.S. financial sanctions on the country. Because of its abundant natural resources, Iran was able to easily pivot to producing hydroelectric power for Bitcoin mining when the U.S. clamped down on its oil and gas operations. The government requires that miners pay a higher tariff for their power usage and sell all mined Bitcoin to the country's central bank. Due to these requirements, illegal crypto-mining activities have proliferated, which created significant electrical outages in the country during peak usage periods. Iran had to halt all crypto mining for four months while clamping down on allowable activity.

Crypto's role in the war between Israel and Hamas has been on the radar of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the U.S. Treasury arm that combats terrorism financing. A combined $165 million in crypto transactions, consisting of 200 wallets linked to Hamas, are believed to be tied to the Oct. 7, 2023 surprise attack on Israel.

Bitcoin has also been cited for the climate change implications of its massive electric power usage. The University of Cambridge publishes the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index (CBECI), which provides estimates on the greenhouse gas emissions related to Bitcoin. It found that crypto mining is responsible for 0.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The fast rise and subsequent collapse of FTX Trading Ltd. represented one of Bitcoin's most dramatic chapters. FTX was led by Sam Bankman-Fried, colloquially known as SBF, and operated in conjunction with Alameda Research, another SBF-founded entity run by Caroline Ellison, his romantic partner at the time. FTX grew aggressively through high-profile acquisitions and splashy marketing campaigns, including celebrity and social media influencer endorsements. The marketing message was focused on higher yields than typical bank accounts.In November 2022, CoinDesk published an article detailing FTX's precarious financial risks, lack of accounting oversight and potential criminal use of customer assets. Panicked customers created an $8 billion liquidity shortfall. Combined with the collapse of the FTT digital token on which Alameda Research relied for its operations, FTX filed for bankruptcy.

In December 2022, SBF was arrested and indicted by the U.S. District Court on multiple criminal charges, including money laundering, wire fraud, campaign finance violations and securities fraud. His $250 million bond was described as the largest pre-trial bond in U.S. history. In early November 2023, SBF was convicted on seven federal counts. He will be formally sentenced on March 28, 2024.

Bitcoin Price Trajectory

The Bitcoin supply was capped from the beginning by Nakamoto, who stipulated a maximum of 21 million coins. As of March 16, 2024, there were 19,656,225 Bitcoins in existence, leaving just 1.34 million left to be mined.One year after Nakamoto rolled out Bitcoin in 2009, he became a digital ghost. His decentralized vision meant that there was no central authority, server, storage or administrator. All the parties were peer-to-peer and the blockchain was distributed to all. The network existed merely to legitimize and confirm the transactions. The price of Bitcoin dropped with the new uncertainty surrounding these actions.The first real-world Bitcoin transaction occurred on May 22, 2010, a date known to Bitcoin enthusiasts now as Bitcoin Pizza Day. 

Laszlo Hanyecz paid 10,000 BTC to have two Papa John's pizzas delivered to him. The pizzas retailed for about $25. At the peak of Bitcoin's pricing thus far in 2024, the two pizzas would have cost north of $689 million.Bitcoin thrives on volatility, part of which emanates from the Gartner Hype Cycle. This life cycle is common among new and innovative technologies. The five stages include the innovation trigger, peak of inflated expectations, trough of disillusionment, slope of enlightenment and plateau of productivity. Many individuals created and then lost vast fortunes in Bitcoin, causing eight Nobel Prize winners in economic sciences to deem Bitcoin a bubble much like the oft-cited Dutch tulip mania in the 1600s. 

Bitcoin supporters point out that although Bitcoin has crashed several times, it has also returned to its previous peak each time, while other bubbles have not recovered their value.The questionable strength of the economy has also been a huge factor in Bitcoin pricing. Sharp declines occurred in pricing when the last speculative run was curtailed by interest rate hikes in 2022 to stave off inflation. Interest rates rose all the way to a federal funds rate of 5.25% to 5.5%, the Federal Reserve's highest level in 22 years. Investor appetite for risk all but disappeared and liquidity became a major issue among the exchanges. 

The FTX collapse exacerbated the liquidity issue as investors began pulling funds until remaining funds were frozen within FTX. Many smaller exchanges buckled under the liquidity collapse.Bitcoin's value decreased more than 70% from its all-time high of $68,789 in November 2021 to lows in the $16,000 range in December 2022. In late 2023, Bitcoin finally broke through resistance barriers to reach the $30,000 to $35,000 range.Going into 2024, persistent inflation continues to be a headwind that experts are sorting out. While interest rates are still not back to their original lows, the market responded positively to the expectation of no further increases.

In January 2024, the Securities and Exchange Commission greenlit 11 Bitcoin ETFs. Ric Edelman, a leading financial author and industry speaker, is a vocal proponent of cryptocurrencies. With the SEC's approval, he believes that the financial advisory community will propel the trajectory of these newly approved spot Bitcoin ETFs and could drive the price up to triple its current value. As more and more firms express interest in working with crypto assets, industry regulators will be refining their expectations in how these alternative assets are handled and marketed to the public.

On March 5, 2024, Bitcoin reached its previous all-time high of $69,000, a marking a comeback of more than 300% from the "crypto winter" of 2022. In 2024, the total cryptocurrency market capitalization topped $2 trillion for the first time since early 2022.Edelman anticipates Bitcoin will reach $150,000 over the next couple of years. Others are willing to ponder higher values. Thomas J. Lee, Fundstrat Global Advisor co-founder and head of research, said in a recent interview that he believes that surging demand for limited supplies could allow Bitcoin to progress to $500,000 in the next five years.

Anticipating the Future of Bitcoin

The SEC's January announcement has opened Bitcoin up to many more investors.Bitcoin is also about to experience another key event known as a Bitcoin halving. Unique to cryptocurrency, this deflationary action is taken to accentuate its scarcity by decreasing the pace at which new coins are created. A halving occurs approximately every four years, when the number of mined blocks since the last halving reaches 210,000.

The upcoming halving, currently anticipated to occur around April 20, 2024, will reduce the reward to Bitcoin miners by 50%, from 6.25 Bitcoin per block to 3.125 Bitcoin. The outcome has historically correlated with rising BTC prices, although of course past performance is no guarantee of future results. Halving is expected to cease in 2040 when the total amount of Bitcoin in circulation reaches its cap of 21 million. By that time, the mining reward will be just one satoshi, which is the the lowest denomination of Bitcoin and can no longer be split.

Satoshi Nakamoto's personal holdings amount to 1.124 million Bitcoin, which are currently valued around $75 billion. While Nakamoto's wallets have been basically untouched since creation, the sheer numbers could still impact the cryptocurrency market in numerous ways. Significant wealth concentrated in a speculative investment can be problematic both for the living as well as their heirs. As time continues to pass, Nakamoto's estate planning (or even lack there of) could unleash new surprises.In a stunning revelation, Nakamoto's Genesis wallet, the one that held the inaugural 50 BTC reward, was anonymously gifted 27 Bitcoin on Jan. 5, 2024. 

The extraordinary gift, worth about $1.17 million, created significant speculation in the crypto community. Was this a stunt to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Genesis block? Was it a triumph of marketing genius to generate interest in the expected SEC approval of the ETFs? Was it the IRS seeking an avenue to the elusive Nakamoto to enforce a just-enacted requirement to report crypto transactions over $10,000?

Bitcoin, at just 15 years old, still has a long saga ahead of it.