Bitcoin's origin story sounds like something out of science fiction: It was launched in 2008 on the heels of a white paper published by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity – and country of origin – are unknown. Nakamoto conceived of Bitcoin as a currency that was 1) encrypted; 2) decentralized, i.e. it was ungoverned and did not belong to any nation; and 3) a digital "distributed ledger," such that everyone can verify online the legitimacy of transactions.
Correction (Dec. 18, 2013): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the long pink string of numbers and letters in the interactive at the top is the target output hash your computer is trying to find by running the mining script. In fact, it is one of the inputs that your computer feeds into the hash function, not the output it is looking for.
Your machine, right now, is actually working as part of a bitcoin mining collective that shares out the computational load. Your computer is not trying to solve the block, at least not immediately. It is chipping away at a cryptographic problem, using the input at the top of the screen and combining it with a nonce, then taking the hash to try to find a solution. Solving that problem is a lot easier than solving the block itself, but doing so gets the pool closer to finding a winning nonce for the block. And the pool pays its members in bitcoins for every one of these easier problems they solve.
Mining is the process of spending computation power to secure Bitcoin transactions against reversal and introducing new Bitcoins to the system. Technically speaking, mining is the calculation of a hash of the block header, which includes among other things a reference to the previous block, a hash of a set of transactions and a nonce (an arbitrary number used just once for authentication purposes).
As soon as a miner finds a solution and a majority of other miners confirm it, this winning block is accepted by the network as the “official” block for those particular transactions. The official block is then added to previous blocks, creating an ever-lengthening chain of blocks, called the “blockchain,” that serves as a master ledger for all bitcoin transactions. (Most cryptocurrencies have their own blockchain.) And, importantly, the winning miner is rewarded with brand-new bitcoins (when Carlson got started, in mid-2012, the reward was 50 bitcoins) and all the processing fees. The network then moves on to the next batch of payments and the process repeats—and, in theory, will keep repeating, once every 10 minutes or so, until miners mine all 21 million of the bitcoins programmed into the system.
Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency, a concept that was discussed in the late 90s. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list. The concept was presented by a person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The real identity of Nakamoto has been a mystery since that time, with various theories on who the individual or group may be.
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.