During mining, your Bitcoin mining hardware runs a cryptographic hashing function (two rounds of SHA256) on what is called a block header. For each new hash that is tried, the mining software will use a different number as the random element of the block header, this number is called the nonce. Depending on the nonce and what else is in the block the hashing function will yield a hash which looks something like this:
Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.
Controlling and monitoring your mining rig requires dedicated software. Depending on what mining rig you have, you’ll need to find the right software. Many mining pools have their own software, but some don’t. In case you’re not sure which mining software you need, you can find a list of Bitcoin mining software here. Also, if you want to compare different mining software, you can do it here.
Backtracking a bit, let's talk about "nodes." A node is a powerful computer that runs the bitcoin software and helps to keep bitcoin running by participating in the relay of information. Anyone can run a node, you just download the bitcoin software (free) and leave a certain port open (the drawback is that it consumes energy and storage space – the network at time of writing takes up about 145GB). Nodes spread bitcoin transactions around the network. One node will send information to a few nodes that it knows, who will relay the information to nodes that they know, etc. That way it ends up getting around the whole network pretty quickly.
In 2014 prices started at $770 and fell to $314 for the year. In February 2014 the Mt. Gox exchange, the largest bitcoin exchange at the time, said that 850,000 bitcoins had been stolen from its customers, amounting to almost $500 million. Bitcoin's price fell by almost half, from $867 to $439 (a 49% drop). Prices remained low until late 2016.