In the spirit of open-source, Hal Finney is a co-founder of Bitcoin. He exchanged emails with Satoshi Nakamoto and suggested bug fixes, as well as philosophized about the macro of where Bitcoin is headed in the future, what changes might be made to the code to make it better, and even ideas about what is Bitcoin’s “core story.”
Finney received an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology. As the second developer hired by the PGO corporation, he worked alongside Phil Zimmerman, the creator of Pretty Good Privacy (PGP), which is the most widely used email encryption software in the world. Finney refactored much of the code for PGP on behalf of Zimmerman, though this wasn’t made public due to the legal issues the creator faced; Zimmerman was nearly indicted for arms export control violations.
Finney told Andy Greenberg that he worked closely with Zimmerman in order to code “the bulk of the changes” from PGP 1.0 to PGP 2.0, he’s rarely been fully credited for that work.
Finney, who in his senior of high school in 1974 was voted “most brains” by his peers, administered in the 1990s the world’s first cryptographically secured anonymous mailer.
Here we are faced with the problems of loss of privacy, creeping computerization, massive databases, more centralization – and Chaum offers a completely different direction to go in, one which puts power into the hands of individuals rather than governments and corporations,” Finney wrote on the Cypherpunks Mailing List in 1992, referring to privacy advocate David Chaum. “The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them.”
He wrote on the list in 1993: “With digital cash and smart cards, you should be able to engage in…transactions with no organization or institution able to violate your privacy or steal your money. You can protect yourself, rather than having to trust others. This puts more power into the hands of the consumer.”
On BitcoinTalk, a popular internet forum, Finney, who received the first Bitcoin transaction from Nakamoto, detailed his discovery of, and early days working on, Bitcoin.
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.
Finney simply wasn’t as cynical as other cryptographers. “Cryptographers have seen too many grand schemes by clueless noobs,” Finney wrote on the BitcoinTalk forum in 2013. “I was more idealistic; I have always loved crypto, the mystery and the paradox of it.”
In the early days of Bitcoin one did not need graphics processing units (GPU), a specialized electronic circuit designed to rapidly manipulate and alter memory to accelerate the creation of images, but is also applicable to other processes, to mine Bitcoins. You could instead mine bitcoins with CPUs, and Finney did so. He stopped mining after several blocks, citing the loud noise and that it heated up his computer. Finney admits he wishes he had kept mining, but saw it as “half glass full, glass half empty.”
Finney made more than 300 posts on BitcoinTalk, spanning discussion on the mining, computer science and economics of Bitcoin. He gave his view on many things, including what Bitcoin is.
“I see Bitcoin as ultimately becoming a reserve currency for banks, playing much the same role as gold did in the early days of banking,” he wrote. “Banks could issue digital cash with greater anonymity and lighter weight, more efficient transactions.”
The price gyrations entertained Finney. “I have skin in the game,” he wrote. “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.”
He posted what he was working on on Twitter. “Thinking about how to reduce CO2 emissions from a widespread Bitcoin implementation,” he tweeted Jan. 27, 2009.
He also looked into anonymity on the Bitcoin network:
Doctors diagnosed in 2009 Finney with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and he wrote about it on BitcoinTalk.
“I was in the best shape of my life at the start of that year,” he wrote. “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.”
But, his 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 works by killing motor neurons, which are responsible for carrying signals from the brain to the muscles, causing first weakness, and ultimately paralysis. It is fatal usually between 2 and 5 years, but Stephen Hawking, the longest living person diagnosed with ALS, has lived with ALS for 40 years.
“My symptoms were mild at first and I continued to work, but fatigue and voice problems forced me to retire in early 2011,” said Finney. “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.”
He added: “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 be released. I just have to do the documentation.”
He wrote about the diagnosis on Less Wrong called “Dying Outside,” a reference that he could expect to keep full cognitive functioning even while his body failed him.
Finney considered himself still pretty lucky. “Even with the ALS, my life is very satisfying,” said Finney. “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.”
As Finney’s muscles grew weaker, he still coded on Bitcoin. He improved Bitcoin’s elliptic-curve cryptography, speeding up the network’s transparency by up to 20%. Once he had lost his ability to type code, he still coded using eye-tracking software. He worked on a program called bcflick, a program to better secure Bitcoin wallets.
Finney was most proud of his work on PGP. “Although I would not be surprised if my small contributions to Bitcoin, particularly my optimization of the elliptic curve math, may be the lasting contribution of my work.”
Andy Greenberg of Forbes interviewed Finney in March 2014, who answered questions by raising eyes for yes and lowering them for no due to the diseases progress. Greenberg asked Finney if he was Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin. With the lowering of his eyes, Finney said no, he was not. Greenberg asked a slightly different 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,” Greenberg wrote.
Finney raised his eyes and eyebrows, signaling yes. Then Greenberg asked him if he was proud of that work. “Finney raised his eyes again, and he smiled.”
When Newsweek claimed to have found Satoshi Nakamoto in a 64-year-old man named Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto, an acquaintance of Greenberg’s sent the reporter an email, noting the coincidence that Finney had lived for nearly a decade in the same city as Dorian. Greenberg wanted to know if Finney was actually Nakamoto. Finney’s wife, Fran, facilitated the meeting.
Greenberg had sent Finney’s writing to be analyzed by writing analysis firm Juola & Associates. John Noecker, the firm’s chief scientist, said Finney’s writing style matched Nakamoto’s better than any other candidate they had ever considered. Noecker thought Finney might have been behind the Bitcoin white paper.
“So, it seems to me,” he wrote in an email to Greenberg, “that you may have found the real Satoshi Nakamoto.”
But, Finney denied this, and his family said he would have gladly taken credit. After Greenberg’s visit, he received an email from Finney, which had taken the better part of the day to compose. He was brief out of necessity.
“The reason I was skeptical about Dorian Nakamoto is that he didn’t match the picture in my mind that I had of Satoshi,” wrote Finney. “I pictured him younger, as he was giving the impression of youthful vigor. Then there is the language Bitcoin was written in, C++. Satoshi was a master of the intricacies, and I’ve only seen this in young programmers. It seems hard to master C++ if you didn’t learn it while you’re young. As I have learned more about him, there are details that don’t add up, such as his care for an aging mother, which might cause financial strain.”
Finney was flattered by the suspicion that he might be Nakamoto, but categorically denied the allegations. “I don’t know what more I can say,” he wrote. “You have records of how I reacted to the announcement of Bitcoin, and I struggled to understand it. I suppose you could retort that I was able to fake it, but I don’t know what I can say to that. I’ve done some changes to the Bitcoin code, and my style is completely different from Satoshi’s. I program in C, which is compatible with C++, but I don’t understand the tricks that Satoshi used.”
Finney succumbed August 28, 2014 to ALS, marking the end of a 5-year battle with the disease.
Finney’s legacy lives on in the community. One company, GenesisCoin, which provides Bitcoin ATMs, named the Finney3 after Finney.
Finney chose to be cryopreserved. Read about his particular cryopreservation.