Coingeek New York Day 1 Traces Roots of Blockchain to Digital Timestamping

The CoinGeek Conference currently being held at The Sheraton Times Square in New York until October 7 ended its first day by tracing the roots of blockchain technology when its foundations were laid down 30 years ago by two brilliant minds: Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta, co-founders of Bellcore spin-off Surety Technologies that became the first firm to offer digital timestamping services.

Considered to be the fathers of the concept of blockchain, Haber and Stornetta, who are alumni of both Harvard and Stanford University, told the story of how digital timestamping, which is the foundation of what is now known as blockchain, was developed during a panel discussion that included Ian Grigg, financial cryptographer and creator of the Ricardian contract, and Dr. Craig S. Wright, more popularly known as Bitcoin white paper author Satoshi Nakamoto.

Haber recalled how Stornetta, while working together at Bellcore, was obsessed with the idea of providing integrity to records without having to rely on an authority figure. And it was after hitting the seemingly insurmountable wall of figuring out how to do away with data integrity being dependent on a third-party entity that they finally resolved the problem.

“And finally, Stuart, being the adult in the room, pulls me aside and says, ‘Scott, I don’t think you can do this. [But] I’d still like to get a publication out, so why don’t we prove that you can’t remove trust?’ And long story short, it was in the process of writing that proof that we realized how to solve the problem. It was in the process of proving it couldn’t be done that we realized how you could remove having to trust a single entity,” Stornetta explained.

And so, they were able to publish “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document” in 1991 and two other follow-up publications, one in 1993 and the other in 1997, that were all cited in the Bitcoin white paper. 

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“We wanted a setup that is registration, certificate and verification mechanism that did not rely on trusting a single entity, did not rely on assumptions of system security, and also relied on as few cryptographic assumptions and personal trust assumptions as possible. And what we came up with is the distributed system of records, now commonly referred to as the blockchain,” Haber said.

For those who confuse the terms Bitcoin and blockchain, the former is actually the first-ever successful deployment of the latter. In fact, the third section of the white paper is devoted solely on a timestamp server, with the first statement underlying the central role of digital timestamping in Bitcoin: “The solution we propose begins with a timestamp server.”

A fun fact that was discussed and is definitely worth mentioning is how Haber and Stornetta continue up to this day their system of publishing ads in The New York Times that contain the hash value of all of Surety’s registration requests since 1991. Haber shows a sample of their ad on The New York Times dated September 5, 2021 with the headline “Officials Worry as Crypto Boom Invades Banking.”

“I first want to grab the delicious irony of The New York Times trying to warn the world that crypto is coming. And then to find at the bottom of the article, something that essentially asserts, Yeah, been here for 30 years. Nice that you started to notice us,” Stornetta wittingly said.

Stornetta likens this pre-Internet process to “placing in all of the major libraries of the world a weekly copy of a record” in order to prevent something like a 51% attack. Notice how the hash header is the only thing they needed to publish in order to secure their records. Wright is quick to point out that the same goes for Bitcoin and how scaling to bigger blocks do not affect security at all.

“So, you publish this little teeny-weeny bit [of hash header] every 10 minutes and that completely, utterly secures the network. Because if that isn’t secure, nothing is. And that’s the whole bit everyone keeps forgetting. They keep going, ‘Oh, you can’t have big blocks because there’s too much information to send to everyone in the world.’ Well, you don’t send it to everyone in the world, just like they haven’t filled the whole newspaper up with everything that they’re doing,” Wright pointed out.

And as proven by the recent 2GB blocks mined on the BSV blockchain, Bitcoin scaling is a non-issue and only serves to allow it to grow to become a technology that can be used by everyone, everywhere for everything.

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