The Man Who Really Built Bitcoin

Who cares about Satoshi Nakamoto? Someone else has made Bitcoin what it is and has the most power over its destiny.

In March, a bewildered retired man faced journalists yelling questions about virtual currency outside his suburban home in Temple City, California. Dorian Nakamoto, 64, had been identified by Newsweek as the person who masterminded Bitcoin—a story that, like previous attempts to unmask its pseudonymous inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, was soon discredited. Meanwhile, the person arguably most responsible for enabling the currency to swell in value to $7.7 billion, and with the most influence on its future, was hiding in plain sight on the other side of the country, in Amherst, Massachusetts.

That person is Gavin Andresen, a mild-mannered 48-year-old picked by the real Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he or she is, as his successor in late 2010. Andresen became “core maintainer”—chief developer—of the open source code that defines the rules of Bitcoin and provides the software needed to make use of it. The combination of Nakamoto’s blessing and Andresen’s years of diligent, full-time work on the Bitcoin code has given him significant clout in Bitcoin circles and stature beyond. The CIA and Washington regulators have looked to him to explain the currency. And it was Andresen who conceived of thenonprofit Bitcoin Foundation—established in 2013—which is the closest thing to a central authority in the world of Bitcoin.

Some Bitcoin enthusiasts offer bombastic predictions that Americans will shake off the shackles of the Federal Reserve and poor nations will rise to prosperity with the low-cost transactions made possible by the stateless virtual currency. Other Bitcoin boosters have the air of salesmen chasing a mark, reeling off reasons you should buy into the currency that make you feel you’re not getting the whole story. In contrast, Andresen seems to be in search of quiet personal satisfaction, cheerfully calling himself a “geek interested in nuts and bolts things.” He can make a pretty good pitch for Bitcoin, but he quickly slides into technical nuances that would be a turnoff for most. “We say this is going to be the year of the multisignature wallet,” he says when summing up what 2014 holds for Bitcoin.

Still, Andresen has had and maintains more influence than anyone else on the code that determines how Bitcoin operates—and ultimately whether it can survive. Although there is no central bank for the currency, its design needs significant changes if it is to become widely used. How Andresen wields his power over Bitcoin will shape not only its fate but also the prospects for other virtual currencies.

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