Everybody wants to know who Satoshi Nakamoto is, but why? After all, 70%, if not more, of all bitcoin code has been re-written since his first version of Bitcoin came online. Moreover, many of the people who helped Satoshi re-write the code have been open about their contribution. And in the spirit of open-source, all these individuals are “the creator of bitcoin.”
That’s the “commons approach” to incorporation. If you look at Bitcoin as a peer-to-peer corporation, then its earliest adopters are co-founders in a way. If Bitcoin were a traditional company, they’d certainly be C-Level executives.
In this view, Bitcoin lost one of its co-founders, one of its C-Level executives, yesterday. His name is Hal Finney. And when I write, “is,” I mean it…Hal has been cryopreserved. He looks forward to returning to an Earth sometime in the future, when there has been a cure for ALS.
People already associate the crypto-equity bitcoin with the future. That association would be fair. Hal is the perfect example of this.
After a long life on the front lines of cryptography and PGP, Hal Finney succumbed to ALS yesterday morning, August 28th, 2014. The end of his 5-year battle with the disease marked the beginning of a new journey for the cypherpunk. Hal was cryopreserved after doctors pronounced him clinically dead. But all this not before a historical lifetime had come to an end.
Hal Finney was on the receiving end of the first Bitcoin transaction ever, from Satoshi Nakamoto. Long before his involvement in Bitcoin, he was respected and revered in the cryptology community. After receiving an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology, Hal became the second developer hired by the PGO Corporation, working alongside Phil Zimmerman. He also ran the world’s first cryptographically secured anonymous mailer in the 1990s. He loved programming, and it is something he could do until late in his life.
By March 2013, ALS had handicapped Hal, as he explained in a thread on BitcoinTalk. In the thread, Hal describes his situation, remaining optimistic, which parallels the creation of Bitcoin, of which he no doubt was a part:
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.
He mined bitcoins with CPUs, when this was possible. After having mined several blocks, Hal turned the mining off, because the noise bothered him and it made his computer hot. In retrospect, Hal admits, he wishes he had kept it on, while acknowledging how lucky he was to be there at the beginning and that it’s one of those “half glass full, glass half empty” things. Around the time all of this was unfolding, Hal got another surprise:
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. Currently I’m working on something Mike Hearn suggested, using the security features of modern processors, designed to support “Trusted Computing”, to harden Bitcoin wallets. It’s almost ready to release. I just have to do the documentation.
And of course the price gyrations of bitcoins are entertaining to me. I have skin in the game. But I came by my bitcoins through luck, with little credit to me. I lived through the crash of 2011. So I’ve seen it before. Easy come, easy go.
That’s my story. I’m pretty lucky overall. Even with the ALS, my life is very satisfying. But my life expectancy is limited. Those discussions about inheriting your bitcoins are of more than academic interest. My bitcoins are stored in our safe deposit box, and my son and daughter are tech savvy. I think they’re safe enough. I’m comfortable with my legacy.
From early on in bitcoin’s history, Hal pondered bitcoin. He shared his ponderings with his Twitter followers at times:
Thinking about how to reduce CO2 emissions from a widespread Bitcoin implementation
— halfin (@halfin) January 27, 2009
Before a Forbes article went to print, in the wake of the Newsweek faux pas, many people believed Hal could be Satoshi Nakamoto. After Andy Greenberg’s interview with Hal, this theory was largely put to rest. The interview was conducted the only way Hal could towards the end of his life: a raise of the eyes for yes, and a lowering for no.
Greenberg asked Hal for Forbes if he was involved in the creation of bitcoins. With his eye movement, Hal says he was not. Greenberg re-formulated the question:
I sat next to Finney again and asked him if, in [the] sense of open-source contribution, he did consider himself one of the creators of Bitcoin. He raised his eyes and eyebrows.
Then I asked him if he was proud of that work. Finney raised his eyes again, and he smiled.
To learn more about Hal’s cryopreservation, click here.