Many people mistakenly believe that the history of blockchain starts with the launch of Bitcoin, the world’s first-ever cryptocurrency.
But the technical foundation of modern cryptography, which lies at the heart of blockchain, was laid all the way back at the beginning of the 20th century when it was primarily used for military purposes.
Later, so-called “public-key cryptography” emerged, based on a series of special algorithms that would eventually lead to the development of both blockchain and Bitcoin, driven by visionaries with revolutionary concepts of a decentralized, digital economy.
Early blockchain enthusiasts didn’t care much about big fortunes or fame; their true concern lay in turning the decentralized financial system in which they believed into a reality. And, as it has turned out, their unshakeable belief spread as others became aware of their work and has proven strong enough to help the crypto industry weather its volatile history full of ups and downs.
We owe the current triumph of blockchain to these early architects, and now, standing as we are upon the brink of what — for better or worse — looks to be a new, restructured economic era, is a good time to honor those who lay the groundwork for what we are doing today. Likewise, the moment seems apropos to focus on the new faces working now who may help light our path forward through all the uncertainty.
In this article we are going to take a look at some of the people who have helped conceptualize blockchain and create the structures that have made decentralized finance possible and take you to the cutting edge, where future members of the blockchain pantheon are beating out new paths past the horizon.
Adam Back, David Chaum, Wei Dai and Nick Szabo — the cypherpunks that created the precursors to Bitcoin
In 1997 British researcher Adam Back came up with a solution that would go on to form the basis for Bitcoin software. Back’s creation was Hashcash, a predecessor of the PoW system. Although Back denies his participation in any of Satoshi’s activities, he is most likely the first person Nakamoto discussed his big plans with via email. He got interested in improving Bitcoin’s privacy and fungibility a bit later, introducing his own take on confidential transactions, Schnorr signatures and sidechain offerings. Adam Back was one of the most influential cypherpunks from the early days who defended privacy, freedom of expression and access to information along with Eric Hughes, John Gimore and Timothy May.
While Back was working on his system, the concept of “e-cash” was crystallizing in the minds of some of the other blockchain forefathers. While the earliest system of this kind, David Chaum’s DigiCash, was founded 8 years before the Back’s discovery, both Wei Dai and Nick Szabo shared their proposals for “B-Money” and “Bit-Gold” in 1998. Szabo also outlined the nature of smart contracts, which, along with his other work, has led many to believe that he is the real person behind the name Satoshi Nakamoto.
Hal Finney — childlike belief combined with unparalleled commitment
Another cypherpunk suspected to be Bitcoin’s true creator is Hal Finney who received the first Bitcoin transaction in 2009. Adam Back said that if any of the cypherpunks were the Bitcoin code writers, Finney would have definitely been the one who helped Satoshi review the code prior to release. Hal got his engineering degree in Caltech and worked in computer game development for some years. But for most of his professional life he worked on designing programs that enabled people to evade the government’s all-seeing eye.
When Bitcoin first crossed Hal’s computer screen, his workspace was just a corner of his living room filled with various computer equipment and littered with programming papers. That space became the setting for his early Bitcoin mining operation. Hal Finney was enthusiastic about the project right up to his death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 2014. Even when seriously ill, he never stopped working on the Bitcoin network upgrades and trying to get as many people involved as possible.
Martti Malmi — the shy student from Helsinki who wrested Bitcoin back from the brink of oblivion
Alongside Hal Finney, Satoshi Nakamoto received emails from Martti Malmi in the spring of 2009, a time when, after over a year of existence, Bitcoin had failed to generate any significant interest. Martti wasn’t well versed in cryptography but was inspired by the revolutionary ideas that Bitcoin could actualize. A young, uncommunicative man whose idea of paradise was a small dorm room with an online gaming rig and heavy metal music blasting in the background, managed to prove that Bitcoin could be worth real money and had stores of potential.
Malmi provided Bitcoin not solely with technical but also with informational support. Before reaching out to Satoshi, he wrote a post about it on an online anarchist forum. Later on, Martti released a document consisting of comprehensive answers to 7 questions about Bitcoin’s credibility and Satoshi appreciated it so much that Malmi was given all the credit when the Bitcoin website was revamped. Among his other achievements are his idea of how to get more nodes on the Bitcoin network by making its launch automatic once a computer is turned on and the creation of an online Bitcoin forum where technology enthusiasts could interact with each other.
Gavin Andresen — the disarming smile that won the trust of new Bitcoin users
Proclaimed by Satoshi himself as the lead developer of Bitcoin Core, Gavin Andresen, a programmer from Massachusetts, started his career in crypto with a project akin to a Bitcoin faucet that gave free coins to everyone who registered on his site. When a 44 year-old Gavin found out about the technology, it partially appealed to him due to the accord it shared with his political beliefs. But, beyond that, for Andresen the most attractive things about Bitcoin were the network’s decentralized nature and its open source software, run by all of its users instead of a single person.
Despite his Princeton education, Gavin had little in the way of an ego and always viewed the job as something he found interesting, but with no promise of big money or fame at the end of the tunnel. And owing to his kindness, fairness and openness to answer any questions addressed to him, he managed to provide Bitcoin with a trustworthy face while Satoshi hid in the shadows. In addition to being the first person besides Nakamoto and Malmi to make changes to the Bitcoin code, Andresen was one of few pioneers that identified himself on forums with his real name and picture. Having learned to find compromises while serving in the Town Committee of Amherst, he often acted as a sort of mediator in the political fights that took place among early Bitcoin users.
Mark Karpelès — the Frenchman who bought the largest Bitcoin exchange around
With a childhood spent moving from school to school and serious troubles with social interaction, Mark Karpelès couldn’t find his place for a long time in life. After attempting to live in Israel, Kerpeles came back to France where he worked as a programmer. Then in 2009 Mark settled in Japan where he was living when Jed MacCaleb met him online while searching for a prospective purchaser for the Mt.Gox Bitcoin exchange.
Diving into the Bitcoin community in late 2010, Karpelès became a fixture on numerous forums discussing everything related to the technology with an insolence he would never show in real life. A year later Mark acquired Mt.Gox after MacCaleb recognized him as a worthy successor who had already contributed to the exchange’s development by volunteering to help both Jed and Martti Malmi. Karpelès went on to run Mt.Gox, which was always a prime target for hackers, until it filed for bankruptcy in 2014. Before it happened, the exchange was processing 80% of all Bitcoin transactions, which made it the most significant crypto exchange of the early era.
Roger Ver — from Magic: The Gathering natural to Bitcoin Jesus
Unlike many of Bitcoin’s early proponents, American-born investor with Saint Kitts and Nevis citizenship and Japanese residence Roger Ver had quite a carefree childhood in California. From a guy obsessed with card games, muscle cars and wrestling, he grew into a staunch fighter against the U.S. authorities after being imprisoned for 10 months for selling Pest Control Report 2000 on eBay, though Roger himself swears that the real reason he was jailed was for calling federal agents murderers. As soon as he was released in 2006 he moved to Japan aiming to start a new life, but it was during a brief trip back home when he encountered Bitcoin for the first time in the beginning of 2011.
Since then, Ver’s name has been linked to a large number of crypto-related startups which he has invested in, pushing Bitcoin price upward in the process, which earned him the moniker Bitcoin Jesus. His promotion activities generated excitement that extended beyond the crypto crowd and resulted in the first mainstream news coverage of Bitcoin. At the same time Roger understood that the coin’s fate was highly dependent on Mt.Gox, so he was one of the people who assisted Mark Karpelès greatly during the exchange’s tough times. His valuable contribution to early Bitcoin adoption also includes integrating it as a payment method into his first business, MemoryDealers, as well as providing financial support for Charlie Shrem and his New York-based company BitInstant, which is regarded as one of the first startups in crypto. Before serving as the CEO of Bitcoin.com and co-creating Bitcoin Cash, Roger Ver invested in famous blockchain projects like Ripple and Kraken.
Erik Voorhees — from unemployed to crypto bigwig
Despite the fact that making money was of the essence in the early days for Eric Vorhees, who had been unemployed for a long stretch of time and racked up credit card debt when living in New Hampshire, Vorhees stuck with Bitcoin because he had faith that it was going to transform the economic system in place in the world. “My passion is not running a business, it is building the Bitcoin world,” he said after running several profitable Bitcoin companies in the USA and Panama, including SatoshiDICE, Coinapult and Charlie Shrem’s BitInstant, which Voorhees joined after Roger Ver. And he was actually the one who managed to attract a $1 million investment for BitInstant from the Winklevoss Brothers.
With a libertarian father, Erik grew up rather skeptical of the government's authority in general and was quick to take to crypto after reading a Free Talk Live’s article introducing Bitcoin to Facebook in 2011. With an ability to shake off setbacks and continue moving forward, Voorhees has already had a remarkable career and overcome many obstacles to get where he is now, as the CEO of the Swiss cryptocurrency exchange platform ShapeShift.
Charlie Shrem — the young man from Brooklyn who became a leading Bitcoin entrepreneur
Charlie Shrem was raised in a religious republican family from a Syrian Jewish community, so initially he didn’t share Erik’s views on the role of the traditional financial system. But over time his passion and enthusiasm made Charlie call into question the things he was convinced of while growing up. His entrepreneurial spirit and innate adventurism drew him towards Bitcoin, which he learned about through an article about Silk Road. Shrem went on to develop BitInstant, his first startup, with Gareth Nelson from Whales. Shrem and Nelson had the goal of making Bitcoin purchases easier and faster than they were at the time at Mt. Gox.
After Charlie, Roger and Erik began working together, the first two jokingly gave Shrem the nickname “Statist,” owing to his respect for traditional politics, but this never stopped BitInstant from gaining popularity among ideologically motivated people. Beyond BitInstant, Charlie Shrem was one of the pioneers that redefined the Bitcoin network, moving beyond anonymity and ideological considerations and presenting it as a place for a variety of online payments along with the creators of BitPay.
Peter Vessenes — the American businessman protecting the Bitcoin economy
Bitcoin’s maturation really became evident once people like Peter Vessenes started getting on board. While running the first venture-backed Bitcoin company CoinLab in Seattle, helping emerging talents develop within the blockchain space, he also tried to do his utmost to save Mt.Gox from collapse. The exact opposite of reclusive Mark Karpelès, easy going Peter persuaded the former to donate 5000 Bitcoins to his new organization, the Bitcoin Foundation, and hand over its website domain which Mark had acquired in 2011.
The Bitcoin Foundation was initiated in response to Bitcoin’s controversial reputation due to its use on the Silk Road black market. Vessenes got acquainted with Charlie Shrem through Gavin Andresen right after the latter flew back from Vienna, and a bit later they all united with Roger Ver to formalize the organization that would go on to promote Bitcoin without compromising its credibility. However, the organization wouldn’t have been possible without Patrick Merck, a timid council from Seattle who was one of the few lawyers well aware of the cryptocurrency legal field at the time. Outside of that, Peter Vessenes is known for his contributions to the mining industry, having run the first company to deliver 65nm Bitcoin mining chips at scale.
The Winklevoss Brothers — Bitcoin gets a public face
Harvard undergrads with Mark Zuckerberg and Olympic rowers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss had established themselves as tabloid mainstays long before they elected to purchase Bitcoin with their proceedings from their victorious Facebook lawsuit. But their subsequent appearance on the front page of The New York Times as Bitcoin evangelists was a watershed moment for the crypto industry. The article, written by Nathaniel Popper, one of the leading US paper’s brilliant business voices, focused not only on Bitcoin but also on the twins as the world’s biggest known holders of the currency with a fortune amounting to over 1% of the total Bitcoin supply. Thus, the Winklevoss brothers claimed to be the first legitimate investors to accumulate such a huge stake of Bitcoin.
In 2013 the Bitcoin Foundation invited the twins to give the keynote speech at its second Bitcoin conference bringing together the brightest minds in the blockchain industry. Tyler and Cameron were experienced enough to denounce the high volatility of the Bitcoin market but they stressed that it was far from a Ponzi scheme or any other form of fraud. Yes, their investing history was not without scandals, but due to their professional guts and hard work they have always been respectable crypto influencers.
Wences Casares — the successful Argentinian entrepreneur who saw a better future in Bitcoin
Born in Argentina, Casares could appreciate the Bitcoin concept deeper than others, coming from a place where, as long as he knew it, there was an economic crisis happening. Despite the fact that Wences grew up in a well-to-do family, he and his loved ones lost everything due to the terrible hyperinflation in Argentina and ended up on a rustic sheep ranch in Patagonia. Such a background led to Casares founding Patagon, Latin America’s first Internet provider allowing online banking services that could expand to the US, Spain and Germany prior to his subsequent blockchain startups.
Bitcoin entered Wenses’s life thanks to his Argentinian friend who presented it as a quick and cheap means of sending money back home. Later, after making sure that the Bitcoin protocol was unbreakable, Casares would say that Bitcoin had changed the way he understood money and for countries like Argentina it might provide a much better place to store people’s funds than the dollar. By the time he visited BitInstant offices in New York and met Shrem and Voorhees, he had already become a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the CEO of Lemon Wallet, a platform for keeping customers’ credit cards and coupons in digital form.
Brian Armstrong — a former Airbnb coder who took up the cryptocurrency mantle
In June 2012 a large investment from Y Combinator, which has funded many remarkable startups, and the involvement of Fred Ehrsam from Goldman Sachs helped give birth to Coinbase, a fiat-to-crypto exchange headquartered in San Francisco that overtook BitInstant. Armstrong believed that the financial system based on blockchain would lead the world to unprecedented innovations. The importance of Coinbase for the American crypto community can hardly be overstated, and in the process Armstrong became a Bitcoin billionaire, included in Fortune’s 40 under 40 list as the 10th most powerful young mind of 2017.
Vitalik Buterin — the Russian-Canadian genius who created a hedge on Bitcoin
Once this shy and lanky guy started sharing his ideas publicly, various banking authorities and corporate executives immediately started lining up to talk to him. For the first time since Vitalik and his parents emigrated to Canada in 2001, he returned to Russia 15 years later, known to the crypto world not only as a co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine but also as the creator of Ethereum. At the end of 2011 Buterin became obsessed with the idea that blockchain can’t be limited to Bitcoin as its only payment method. He had already envisioned a next-generation smart contract platform with built-in scripting language enabling people to design hundreds of different applications powered by a single cryptography transaction ledger. Vitalik named his project, which came into being in 2013, Ethereum in honor of Aristotle's “aethir,” the quintessential fifth element.
Serving as both a reward for mining nodes and a payment of transaction fees, Ether is now the world’s second most popular cryptocurrency with a market capitalization of almost $24 billion and Vitalik joined Brian Armstrong in Fortune’s list of the top 10 outstanding people of 2017. For many years Bitcoin had been the only big player in the crypto market, but the emergence of Buterin’s Ether paved the way for more strong altcoins to enter the fray. Big names in early Bitcoin circles, like the aforementioned Roger Ver and Eric Voorhees, almost immediately acknowledged Vitalik Buterin and even teamed up with him to launch KryptoKit - a Bitcoin wallet in the form of a web browser plugin.
Muneeb Ali & Ryan Shea — partners looking to build up web 3.0
Two of the most exciting areas of current technological development are DeFi and web 3.0. It is widely anticipated that, along with AI and supercomputing, these two spheres will form the basis of how we work and live with computers in the future.
While much of the general attention drawn towards blockchain is financially in nature, there is also a significant sector in the blockchain space working towards solving the data protection issues that are so prevalent in modern life. Of the many fascinating projects working in this space, one of the most promising is Blockstack, an open sourced decentralized computing platform helmed by co-creators Muneeb Ali and Ryan Shea.
At the heart of Ali and Shea’s work is the redistribution of power on the web. The current iteration of the internet is built around silos of concentrated power. With Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and all the rest, users are given access to walled gardens where they create content and hand it over along with their data as the price of admission. Blockstack and other companies like it are trying to build up a different infrastructure wherein the power is distributed to protected, willing participants. While this project has a long way to go, the progress made has been heartening and Blockstack is certainly a company to watch moving forward.
Molly Mackinlay — powering file sharing into the next dimension
Prior to becoming project lead at the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a protocol and peer-to-peer network for storing and sharing data in a distributed file system, Molly Mackinlay spent half a decade working at Google as a project manager. It is because of her unique perspective, having worked for one of the most centralized companies in the world, and the exciting work she does now that Mackinlay has earned a spot on this list as a person to watch moving forward.
Like the previous entry on the list, IPFS is working towards the development of a decentralized internet. By fragmenting data storage and the hosting process, IPFS is trying to build a future in which users are protected from the dangers tied to network breaches and hacks when information is concentrated in clusters. While IPFS has run into some trouble with bad actors using their protocols to enrich themselves, with the recent release of version 0.5, IPFS has optimized itself and is poised to further the decentralized movement.
In a space that is so male-dominated, women are often not given enough credit for their contributions. There are many unsung heroes in the blockchain sphere, and it is high time that they get the recognition they deserve. Molly Mackinlay is uber-talented and someone to watch for an idea of where this all is headed.
Ivan Starinin and Alexander Salnikov — the force behind blockchain philanthropy and the fastest crypto trading software
These two young entrepreneurs, and alums of Russia’s elite Higher School of Economics, were captivated by the potential they saw in blockchain. Ivan Starinin and Alexander Salnikov met Vitalik Buterin when he was just a quiet, awkward member of the rag-tag fledgling crypto community and reached an agreement with him to launch the first exchange to list Ether. MarginCall, the exchange Starinin and Salnikov went on to found in 2014, was the fastest and the most technically advanced exchange in the industry at the time. Beyond that, though, the exchange was ahead of its time. Starinin and Salnikov's first-of-its-kind cryptocurrency exchange allowed users/investors to use traditional investment strategies and tools (longs, shorts, futures and leverages) within this brand new asset class — a financial technology innovation that would only become widespread years later. Their pioneering work provided the cryptocurrency asset class with liquidity, something that the fundamentally-rigid blockchain technology did not have, thereby contributing on a truly global level to the widespread adoption of cryptocurrency.
In 2016 Alexander and Ivan, who started out in crypto by building cryptocurrency trading bots, developed the idea of crypto shares in the form of tokens issued on the Ethereum blockchain. The idea came to fruition via CoinOffering, the first company to offer its shares in the form of blockchain assets, doing so well before Security Token Offerings became prominent. The Russian partners also played an essential role in the fifth-ever ICO campaign, which was held by Humaniq, a revolutionary blockchain bank created by Alex Fork to connect unbanked people. Strongly supported by the Ethereum community, Humaniq managed to sell a large number of tokens, the proceeds of which were subsequently distributed to African countries in an example of how crypto can revolutionize philanthropy.
Starinin and Salnikov are true unsung heroes in blockchain. They have been before their time in almost all their endeavors. They have now set their sights on DeFi, launching Rarible, a new, NFT-powered digital art platform, which, given the current economic and social circumstances, may very well crystallize into a significant vector of development. In addition to Rarible, the duo is in the development stage of their own neo-bank project. The Starinin/Salnikov partnership, already an industry bellwether in hindsight, should be keenly kept track of now for an idea of where the next frontiers will open up.
Rune Christensen — king of the decentralized finance market
It would be a mistake not to include the founder of MakerDAO on this list, with his project being one of the most important in decentralized finance. This very tall Danish fellow, who can spend hours detailing the potential of DeFi, has always been happy to take on leading roles. Since 2015 Christensen has concentrated on establishing the vision and organizational structure of the MakerDAO and the economic fundamentals behind the project’s native Dai cryptocurrency, which is the world’s first stablecoin on the Ethereum blockchain. Due to Dai’s prolonged stability, it has proven itself as a shelter from the high volatility of crypto.
Christensen has described DeFi as a new wave of products complying with the DLT-related values of transparency, security and privacy. As a result of Christensen’s efforts, the stablecoin economy has grown big enough to force the U.S. Federal Reserve to take a closer look at the crypto-backed market. By pushing hard to make his vision a reality, Christensen has truly taken the blockchain industry to another level, probably making the early crypto pioneers proud in the process. And there is still so much room for growth. But in spite of all his achievements, Rune can’t wait to retire and pursue his original dream of becoming a neuroscientist.
All in all, blockchain has always been controversial. While there may still be people that don’t trust the technology, the speed with which blockchain is gaining popularity in today’s digital era is really amazing. The contributions this industry has made to the future of economic life are the results of the herculean efforts of a cadre of world-changers. They’ve come from different parts of the planet but shared a common aim and a common belief. Now there are thousands of individuals worldwide exploring the immense potential in this space and moving the industry forward and the ranks of visionaries building the structures we will inhabit in the future are growing every year.