What Is Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a virtual currency designed to act as money and a form of payment outside the control of any one person, group, or entity, and thus removing the need for third-party involvement in financial transactions. It is rewarded to blockchain miners for the work done to verify transactions and can be purchased on several exchanges.
Bitcoin was introduced to the public in 2009 by an anonymous developer or group of developers using the name Satoshi Nakamoto.
It has since become the most well-known cryptocurrency in the world. Its popularity has inspired the development of many other cryptocurrencies. These competitors either attempt to replace it as a payment system or are used as utility or security tokens in other blockchains and emerging financial technologies.
Learn more about the cryptocurrency that started it all—the history behind it, how it works, how to get it, and what it can be used for.
- Launched in 2009, Bitcoin is the world’s largest cryptocurrency by market capitalization.
- Unlike fiat currency, Bitcoin is created, distributed, traded, and stored using a decentralized ledger system known as a blockchain.
- Bitcoin’s history as a store of value has been turbulent; it has gone through several boom and bust cycles over its relatively short lifespan.
- As the earliest virtual currency to meet widespread popularity and success, Bitcoin has inspired a host of other cryptocurrencies in its wake.
In August 2008, the domain name Bitcoin.org was registered.1 Today, at least, this domain is WhoisGuard Protected, meaning the identity of the person who registered it is not public information.
In October 2008, a person or group using the name Satoshi Nakamoto announced the Cryptography Mailing List at metzdowd.com: “I’ve been working on a new electronic cash system that’s fully peer-to-peer, with no trusted third party.” This now-famous white paper published on Bitcoin.org, entitled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” would become the Magna Carta for how Bitcoin operates today.2
On Jan. 3, 2009, the first Bitcoin block was mined—Block 0. This is also known as the “genesis block” and contains the text: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks,” perhaps proof that the block was mined on or after that date, and maybe also as relevant political commentary.3
On Jan. 8, 2009, the first version of the Bitcoin software was announced to the Cryptography Mailing List, and on Jan. 9, 2009, Block 1 was mined, and Bitcoin mining commenced in earnest.
Bitcoin rewards are halved every 210,000 blocks. For example, the block reward was 50 new bitcoins in 2009. On May 11, 2020, the third halving occurred, bringing the reward for each block discovery down to 6.25 bitcoins.4
One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionths of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a satoshi.5 If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
Bitcoin, as a form of currency, isn’t too complicated to understand. For example, if you own a bitcoin, you can use your cryptocurrency wallet to send smaller portions of that bitcoin as payment for goods or services. However, it becomes very complex when you try to understand how it works.
Bitcoin’s Blockchain Technology
Cryptocurrencies are part of a blockchain and the network required to power it. A blockchain is a distributed ledger, a shared database that stores data. Data within the blockchain are secured by encryption methods. When a transaction takes place on the blockchain, information from the previous block is copied to a new block with the new data, encrypted, and the transaction is verified by validators—called miners—in the network. When a transaction is verified, a new block is opened, and a Bitcoin is created and given as a reward to the miner(s) who verified the data within the block—they are then free to use it, hold it, or sell it.
Bitcoin uses the SHA-256 hashing algorithm to encrypt the data stored in the blocks on the blockchain. Simply put, transaction data stored in a block is encrypted into a 256-bit hexadecimal number. That number contains all of the transaction data and information linked to the blocks before that block.
Data linked between blocks is what led to the ledger being called a blockchain.
Transactions are placed into a queue to be validated by miners within the network. Miners in the Bitcoin blockchain network all attempt to verify the same transaction simultaneously. The mining software and hardware work to solve the nonce, a four-byte number included in the block header that miners are attempting to solve. The block header is hashed, or randomly regenerated by a miner repeatedly until it meets a target number specified by the blockchain. The block header is “solved,” and a new block is created for more transactions to be encrypted and verified.
How to Mine Bitcoin
A variety of hardware and software can be used to mine Bitcoin. When Bitcoin was first released, it was possible to mine it competitively on a personal computer. However, as it became more popular, more miners joined the network, which lowered the chances of being the one to solve the hash. You can still use your personal computer as a miner if it has newer hardware, but the chances of solving a hash are individually are minuscule.
This is because you’re competing with a network of miners that generate around 220 quintillion hashes (220 exa hashes) per second.6 Machines, called Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), have been built specifically for mining—can generate around 255 trillion hashes per second. In contrast, a computer with the latest hardware hashes around 100 mega hashes per second (100 million).7
To successfully become a Bitcoin miner, you have several options. You can use your existing personal computer to use mining software compatible with Bitcoin and join a mining pool. Mining pools are groups of miners that combine their computational power to compete with the large ASIC mining farms.
You increase your chances of being rewarded by joining a pool, but rewards are significantly decreased because they are shared.
If you have the financial means, you could also purchase an ASIC miner. You can generally find a new one for around $20,000, but used ones are also sold by miners as they upgrade their systems. There are some significant costs such as electricity and cooling to consider if you purchase one or more ASICs.
There are several mining programs to choose from and many pools you can join. Two of the most well-known programs are CGMiner and BFGMiner. When choosing a pool, it’s important to make sure you find out how they pay out rewards, what any fees might be, and read some mining pool reviews.
How Do You Buy Bitcoin?
If you don’t want to mine bitcoin, it can be bought using a cryptocurrency exchange. Most people will not be able to purchase an entire BTC because of its price, but you can buy portions of BTC on these exchanges in fiat currency like U.S. dollars. For example, you can buy bitcoin on Coinbase by creating an account and funding it. You can fund your account using your bank account, credit card, or debit card. The following video explains more about buying bitcoin.
How Is Bitcoin Used?
Bitcoin was initially designed and released as a peer-to-peer payment method. However, its use cases are growing due to its increasing value and competition from other blockchains and cryptocurrencies.
To use your Bitcoin, you need to have a cryptocurrency wallet. Wallets hold the private keys to the bitcoin you own, which need to be entered when you’re conducting a transaction. Bitcoin is accepted as a means of payment for goods and services at many merchants, retailers, and stores.
Brick-and-mortar stores that accept cryptocurrencies will generally display a sign that says “Bitcoin Accepted Here”; the transactions can be handled with the requisite hardware terminal or wallet address through QR codes and touchscreen apps. An online business can easily accept Bitcoin by adding this payment option to its other online payment options: credit cards, PayPal, etc.
El Salvador became the first country to officially adopt Bitcoin as legal tender in June 2021.8
Investing and Speculating
Investors and speculators became interested in Bitcoin as it grew in popularity. Between 2009 and 2017, cryptocurrency exchanges emerged that facilitated bitcoin sales and purchases. Prices began to rise, and demand slowly grew until 2017, when its price broke $1,000. Many people believed Bitcoin prices would keep climbing and began buying them to hold. Traders began using cryptocurrency exchanges to make short-term trades, and the market took off.
Risks of Investing in Bitcoin
Speculative investors have been drawn to Bitcoin after its rapid price appreciation in recent years. Bitcoin had a price of $7,167.52 on Dec. 31, 2019, and a year later, it had appreciated more than 300% to $28,984.98. It continued to surge in the first half of 2021, trading at a record high of over $69,000 in November 2021—it then fell over the next few months to hover around $40,000.9
Bitcoin’s all-time high price is $69,000, reached on Nov. 9, 2021.9
Thus, many people purchase Bitcoin for its investment value rather than its ability to act as a medium of exchange. However, the lack of guaranteed value and its digital nature means its purchase and use carry several inherent risks. For example, many investor alerts have been issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) regarding Bitcoin investing.
- Regulatory risk: The lack of uniform regulations about Bitcoin (and other virtual currencies) raises questions over their longevity, liquidity, and universality.
- Security risk: Most individuals who own and use Bitcoin have not acquired their tokens through mining operations. Rather, they buy and sell Bitcoin and other digital currencies on popular online markets, known as cryptocurrency exchanges. Bitcoin exchanges are entirely digital and—as with any virtual system—are at risk from hackers, malware, and operational glitches.
- Insurance risk: Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are not insured through the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Some exchanges provide insurance through third parties. In 2019, prime dealer and trading platform SFOX announced it would be able to offer Bitcoin investors with FDIC insurance, but only for the portion of transactions involving cash.10
- Fraud risk: Even with the security measures inherent within a blockchain, there are still opportunities for fraudulent activity. For instance, in July 2013, the SEC brought legal action against an operator of a Bitcoin-related Ponzi scheme.11
- Market risk: As with any investment, Bitcoin values can fluctuate. Indeed, the value of the currency has seen wild swings in price over its short existence. Subject to high volume buying and selling on exchanges, it is highly sensitive to any newsworthy events. According to the CFPB, the price of Bitcoin fell by 61% in a single day in 2013, while the one-day price drop record in 2014 was as big as 80%.12
How Long Does It Take to Mine 1 Bitcoin?
It takes an average of 10 minutes for the mining network to validate a block and create the reward. The Bitcoin reward is 6.25 BTC per block. This works out to be about 100 seconds for 1 BTC to be mined.
Is Bitcoin a Good Investment?
Bitcoin has a short investing history filled with very volatile prices. Whether it is a good investment depends on your financial profile, investing portfolio, risk tolerance, and investing goals. You should always consult a financial professional for advice before investing in cryptocurrency to ensure it is right for your circumstances.
How Does Bitcoin Make Money?
The Bitcoin network of miners make money from Bitcoin by successfully validating blocks and being rewarded. Bitcoins are exchangeable for fiat currency via cryptocurrency exchanges and can be used to make purchases from merchants and retailers that accept them. Investors and speculators can make money from buying and selling bitcoins.
Investing in cryptocurrencies and other Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) is highly risky and speculative, and this article is not a recommendation by Investopedia or the writer to invest in cryptocurrencies or other ICOs. Since each individual’s situation is unique, a qualified professional should always be consulted before making any financial decisions. Investopedia makes no representations or warranties as to the accuracy or timeliness of the information contained herein.