To the love of my life, my wife, Linnéa. Smart, faithful, real.
And to all awesome Bitcoiners everywhere.
What is the difference between Bitcoin and the various monies used in multiplayer games? Each is defined by software, is created out of nothing, and can have prices comparable to traditional currencies. To a casual observer, they seem much the same.
But there is an important difference in how they’re designed that affects every aspect of their respective systems: whereas game currencies try to stop cheating by reactively banning users suspected of abuse, Bitcoin proactively prevents various types of cheating by making them impossible, impractical, or less profitable than honest behavior.
Grokking Bitcoin describes exactly how Bitcoin accomplishes that. As you learn about hash functions, digital signatures, proof of work, and many other technical concepts, you’ll see over and over that Bitcoin effectively prevents cheating without requiring the global banning of any user.
The book then demonstrates the many benefits of this key feature. As you learn about addresses, wallets, miners, and nodes, you’ll discover that if no one can cheat effectively, it’s safe to allow everyone to participate in every part of the protocol, leaving no one in a trusted position of authority over the system. And with no one holding a trusted position, there’s no need for identities in the first place. Grokking Bitcoin goes on to show how it’s possible for anyone to use the public Bitcoin blockchain with a degree of privacy.
A decentralized system that doesn’t use identities or depend on trust is quite different from the everyday systems with which most of us are familiar. Author Kalle Rosenbaum turns this liability into an asset by starting the explanation of each part of Bitcoin using a centralized, trusted, or identity-dependent system that any reader can intuitively understand. He then transforms that basic system step-by-step into the decentralized, trustless, and pseudonymous system implemented in Bitcoin. With each step filled with clear explanations and many excellent illustrations, even the most highly technical topic is made accessible to the interested layperson.
Bitcoin needs books like Grokking Bitcoin, but it also needs an active group of users who read those books and come to understand the technical principles on which Bitcoin is built. During these early days of what I hope will be the long history of Bitcoin, users are often asked to evaluate proposed changes to the system—changes that may affect the security and privacy of their bitcoins. Those who have read this book will understand how the system prevents cheating and will be able to help ensure that future changes preserve that essential feature and its many benefits.
—David A. Harding
Contributor to Bitcoin documentation
Bitcoin is changing the world.
The world has seen many major improvements to human life, among which are vaccines, electricity, radio, automobiles, and the internet. Some of these technologies start out as rich people’s games, but eventually they trickle down to the general public and bring huge benefits to Earth’s population. Bitcoin will soon be right there among them. This is what makes me super-excited about Bitcoin.
Luckily, I’m fortunate enough to live in a pretty functional society. When conducting financial transactions, I never have to worry that someone will come knocking on my door. I’ve never felt that I need to spend my money immediately because otherwise hyperinﬂation will eat my lunch. But that also makes it harder for me to grok why Bitcoin is important. Bitcoin is mostly theoretical to me, but when I hear reports from less fortunate people living under oppressive or incompetent regimes about how Bitcoin makes their lives better, it becomes very real. Bitcoin will give people an opportunity to opt out of the system that’s holding them hostage.
Satoshi Nakamoto, a pseudonym for a person or a group that wants to remain unknown, published a scientific paper on a cryptography-oriented e-mail list in October 2008. The title of the paper was, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” (see web resource 1 in appendix C). Nakamoto’s paper described the vital parts of Bitcoin, the first digital money system where there’s no central authority to issue money or process transactions. In January 2009, Nakamoto published the first software program to implement the described system. Bitcoin didn’t get much attention then, apart from within a very limited set of cryptography experts. Gradually, as the system proved itself to be working, more people became interested. But the resistance against Bitcoin was and is still far bigger and louder than the adopters, as is the case with all groundbreaking new technology. As of 2019, hundreds of millions of people are aware of Bitcoin, and tens of millions of people are using Bitcoin.
When I started exploring Bitcoin in 2013, it took me a long time to acquire a decent understanding of the technology. That’s not because I’m remarkably stupid; it’s because Bitcoin is a complex system. It’s not just a fancy database—it’s a mishmash of economy, mathematics, technology, and anthropology.
I started a technical blog about Bitcoin in 2015, and I guess Manning liked my content, because the company sent me an email asking if I was interested in writing a book about “blockchain.” Since my passion is Bitcoin—not only the blockchain, an overly hyped word for Bitcoin’s database—I replied and thanked Manning and said I’d be interested in writing a book about Bitcoin. I’ve struggled a few years trying to find a place in the Bitcoin community, and this opportunity seemed like a great fit. The project started, and it turned out to be far harder and far more time-consuming than I expected.
This book began as a typical technical description of Bitcoin, but it was difficult to teach one topic without the full context. The cognitive load at the beginning of the book would be too overwhelming. It became clear that I needed to do something else. I discussed it with my wife, and we came up with the idea of conceptually building Bitcoin from the ground up. The book starts with a really simple spreadsheet system that anyone can understand, and that system evolves into Bitcoin. Each chapter points out some problems with the current system, and we fix them by adding the technology covered by that chapter.
The manuscript for Grokking Bitcoin will be released under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license shortly after its print publication. Releasing a version under an open license was a requirement I had in writing this book. It is my way of giving back to the Bitcoin community that has given me so much over the years. It is my, and Manning’s, hope that those who can’t afford to buy this book will benefit from the open source version. There are, of course, less philanthropic reasons. We also hope that open sourcing this book will give it more visibility, as potential readers browse through it. Please buy the beautifully typeset version if you can afford it. Manning and I have spent an enormous amount of time and effort in producing this book, and we would greatly appreciate the income!
I hope you enjoy reading Grokking Bitcoin as much as I suffered writing it!
I have a lot of people to thank for making this book possible.
First, I’d like to thank my wife, Linnéa, for all our valuable discussions and your consistent encouragement. You are absolutely fantastic.
Christina Taylor at Manning, my dear development editor: thank you for keeping me busy. Work work work. Thank you also to Bert Bates for your very valuable input on the pedagogy.
I’d like to also thank everyone else at Manning who contributed with their professionalism, including Ozren Harlovic, Rebecca Rinehart, Candace Gillhoolley, Ana Romac, Michael Stephens, Erin Twohey, Christopher Kaufmann, Matko Hrvatin, and Greg Wild. A special thanks to the fantastic production team: Chuck Larson, illustrator; Rebecca Deuel-Gallegos, copy editor; Kevin Callahan, typesetter; Tiffany Taylor, proofreader; and Lori Weidert, production editor.
I’d also like to thank Jonathan Jogenfors and Pontus Lindblom for reviewing some chapters covering their respective fields of expertise.
A lot of people on various internet forums were very helpful during my research. The ones that stand out the most are David A. Harding, Pieter Wuille, and Mark “Murch” Erhardt. Thank you for all our Twitter conversations and great answers on Bitcoin Stack Exchange (see web resource 2 in appendix C).
I got help from Andreas M. Antonopoulos when negotiating the open source terms for this book. Your encouragement during that process was gold. Thank you! In addition, thanks for the “vegetarian restaurant” analogy used in [ch11]. Thank you also for your amazing talks; you are a major source of inspiration for me.
I wrote this book using Asciidoctor, which is a text markup language. Thank you, Dan Allen, for your hard work on Asciidoctor; it’s fantastic.
The book went through three review rounds, with several reviewers in each round. Those reviews were extremely useful in vetting ideas and finding gaps in the learning path. Thank you to Jan Goyvaerts, Max Humber, Iryna Romanenko, Jean-François Morin, Al Krinker, Joel Kotarski, Markus Beckmann, Christopher Bailey, Viton Vitanis, Paolo Freuli, Tomo Helman, Marcello Seri, Maciej Drozdzowski, Cicero Zandona, Barnaby Norman, Frances Buontempo, Glenn Swonk, and Sergio Fernandez Gonzalez.
Thank you also to all the Manning Early Access Program (MEAP) readers who contributed their thoughts, corrections, and questions on the Manning Forum, and to Aruna Surya for providing feedback via email.
If I left someone out, I’m terribly sorry; thank you, too.
About this book
The primary goal of this book is for you to be able to decide for yourself whether you trust Bitcoin. On the way to that goal, you’ll learn a number of Bitcoin concepts—such as digital signatures, proof of work, and peer-to-peer networks—on a pretty deep level. Some secondary goals fall out naturally:
Install and use a Bitcoin wallet on your phone and understand what you’re doing.
Engage in technical Bitcoin discussions.
Make informed decisions about how to store your private keys depending on the number of bitcoins stored and the required level of security and convenience.
Run a full Bitcoin node to engage in financial transactions without trusting a third party.
See through extraordinary claims made by scammers, deceivers, and conmen who are piggybacking on Bitcoin’s success. Be careful out there!
Who should read this book
This book is intended for technically interested people who want to understand Bitcoin on a deep technical level. The book doesn’t require any programming skills, but a basic understanding of some technical concepts is beneficial—for example, databases, computer networks, computer programs, and web servers. A little math background can be useful too, but it’s certainly not required.
How this book is organized: A roadmap
This book consists of 11 chapters and 3 appendices:
[ch01] is an overview of Bitcoin. You’ll learn what Bitcoin is, why it matters, and roughly how it operates.
[ch02] discusses cryptographic hash functions and digital signatures. These are the fundamental building blocks needed for the rest of this book. I also lay the groundwork for a fictive money system, the cookie token spreadsheet, that we’ll build on in chapters 2–8.
[ch03] covers addresses. When you send bitcoins, you send them to the recipient’s Bitcoin address. What are Bitcoin addresses, why are they needed, and how are they created and used?
[ch04] goes through how a Bitcoin wallet keeps track of your secret keys and how multiple secret keys can be generated from a single huge random number called a seed. Backups are also discussed in detail.
[ch05] explores the anatomy of a Bitcoin transaction and how transactions are digitally signed and processed.
[ch06] discusses the blockchain: the database where transactions are stored. We walk through how the blockchain is structured and how it enables the use of so-called lightweight wallets.
[ch07] covers proof of work, which is used to select who gets to add new transactions to the blockchain. This process, called mining, is what keeps your bitcoins secure in the blockchain.
[ch08] explores the Bitcoin network. Bitcoin has no central point of control, and you’ll see how that’s possible with a peer-to-peer network. I also explain how to take active part in the Bitcoin network by running your own node.
[ch09] revisits transactions. We circle back to discover some bells and whistles that are important for various applications.
[ch10] introduces segregated witness. Bitcoin was upgraded with major improvements to transaction reliability, verification efficiency, and blockchain capacity in 2017, and this chapter gives you all the details.
[ch11] goes through soft forks and hard forks and how Bitcoin can be safely upgraded using a soft fork together with a careful deployment plan.
I suggest that you read chapters 2–8, where we’ll build the cookie token system from the ground up, sequentially. Each chapter adds a technology to the system to solve a specific problem, and by chapter 8, we’ll have built Bitcoin. Chapters 9, 10, and 11 can be read out of order, but I recommend reading chapter 11 carefully, because it covers the essence of Bitcoin. If you get chapter 11, you’re grokking Bitcoin.
I reuse some overview figures from [ch01] every now and then throughout the book to help you with orientation, both in chapter intros and embedded in the chapters. It’s easy to lose track of the big picture and the goal of the current topic; look for the periscope and section headers like “Where were we?”
Each chapter, except [ch01], contains exercises. They’re there for you to assess your skills. Each batch of exercises is divided into an easier section called “Warm up,” used for shorter fact checks; and a tougher section, “Dig in,” that requires more thinking. Some of the exercises in the “Dig in” sections are dreadfully difficult, so if you get stuck, please consult [app2] for answers.
$ cd ~/.bitcoin
When a command is too long to fit on a single line, we break the line
with a backslash
\ and indent the next line by four characters, as
$ ./bitcoin-cli getrawtransaction \ 30bca6feaf58b811c1c36a65c287f4bd393770c23a4cc63c0be00f28f62ef170 1
Backslashes can be used to write commands across multiple lines in most Linux command-line interpreters, so you can copy and paste such commands into your terminal. Lines of output from commands aren’t broken with backslashes; they’re instead wrapped as needed using a line break arrow as follows:
Throughout the book, data is written in a
fixed-width font: for
7af24c99. I usually don’t explicitly write out what encoding
is used (decimal numbers, hexadecimal strings, base64 strings, base58
strings, and so forth), because it’s often obvious from the context.
liveBook discussion forum
Purchase of Grokking Bitcoin includes free access to a private web forum run by Manning Publications where you can make comments about the book, ask technical questions, and receive help from the author and from other users. To access the forum, go to https://livebook.manning.com/#!/book/grokking-bitcoin/discussion. You can also learn more about Manning’s forums and the rules of conduct at https://livebook.manning.com/#!/discussion.
Manning’s commitment to our readers is to provide a venue where a meaningful dialogue between individual readers, and between readers and the author can take place. It is not a commitment to any specific amount of participation on the part of the author, whose contribution to the forum remains voluntary (and unpaid). We suggest you try asking the author some challenging questions lest his interest stray! The forum and the archives of previous discussions will be accessible from the publisher’s website as long as the book is in print.
Other author resources
If you have specific questions about Bitcoin that you didn’t find the answer to in this book, I recommend Bitcoin Stack Exchange ([web-stackexchange]), which is a platform for questions and answers where good answers are up-voted by readers.
I also recommend the Bitcoin Developer Reference ([web-dev-ref]), for more comprehensive documentation of Bitcoin.
The Bitcoin Core source code ([web-bitcoin-source]) is the most accurate source of information. It’s the reference implementation of the Bitcoin protocol, and reading that source code is sometimes the only way to find answers to questions.
If you want to search the contents of this book online, I recommend working with the source code available at [web-book-source]. It will be released at the latest 90 days after the book is published.
About the author
Kalle Rosenbaum has worked as a software developer for 20 years. His passion for Bitcoin began in 2013 and has continued uninterrupted. Kalle started a Bitcoin consultancy company in 2015 and has worked in the Bitcoin industry since then. He also writes a technical blog that explains various technical Bitcoin topics, such as block-propagation improvements, sidechains, and replace-by-fee. The purpose of the blog is to teach himself and let others benefit, too.