No one was more surprised than the miners themselves. By the end of 2017, even with the rapidly rising difficulty, the per-bitcoin cost for basin miners was around $2,000, producing profit margins similar to those of the early years, only on a vastly larger scale. Marc Bevand, a French-born computer scientist who briefly mined in the basin and is now a tech investor, estimates that, by December, a hypothetical investor who had built a 5-megawatt mine in the basin just four months earlier would’ve recovered the $7 million investment and would now be clearing $140,000 in profit every 24 hours. “Nowadays,” he told me back in December, miners “are literally swimming in cash.”
Bitmain gained an edge by supplying a superior product in large quantities, a feat that has eluded every other company in the industry. The Ordos facility is stuffed almost exclusively with Bitmain’s best performing rig, the Antminer S9. According to company specs, the S9 is capable of churning out 14 terahashes, or 14 trillion hashes, every second while consuming around 0.1 joules of energy per gigahash for a total of about 1,400 watts (about as much as a microwave oven consumes).
More important, Nakamoto built the system to make the blocks themselves more difficult to mine as more computer power flows into the network. That is, as more miners join, or as existing miners buy more servers, or as the servers themselves get faster, the bitcoin network automatically adjusts the solution criteria so that finding those passwords requires proportionately more random guesses, and thus more computing power. These adjustments occur every 10 to 14 days, and are programmed to ensure that bitcoin blocks are mined no faster than one roughly every 10 minutes. The presumed rationale is that by forcing miners to commit more computing power, Nakamoto was making miners more invested in the long-term survival of the network.
Bitcoin is a digital currency created in 2009. It follows the ideas set out in a white paper by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity has yet to be verified. Bitcoin offers the promise of lower transaction fees than traditional online payment mechanisms and is operated by a decentralized authority, unlike government-issued currencies.
The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce bitcoins into the system. Miners are paid transaction fees as well as a subsidy of newly created coins, called block rewards. This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system through mining.
Indeed, for a time, everything seemed to come together for the miners. By mid-2013, Carlson’s first mine, though only 250 kilowatts in size, was mining hundreds of bitcoins a day—enough for him to pay all his power bills and other expenses while “stacking” the rest as a speculative asset that had started to appreciate. By then, bitcoin was shedding its reputation as the currency of drug dealers and data-breach blackmailers. A few legitimate companies, like Microsoft, and even some banks were accepting it. Competing cryptocurrencies were proliferating, and trading sites were emerging. Bitcoin was the hot new thing, and its price surged past $1,100 before settling in the mid-hundreds.
Anyone who can run the mining program on the specially designed hardware can participate in mining. Over the years, many computer hardware manufacturers have designed specialized Bitcoin mining hardware that can process transactions and build blocks much more quickly and efficiently than regular computers, since the faster the hardware can guess at random, the higher its chances of solving the puzzle, therefore mining a block.
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.
In a Ponzi scheme using bitcoins, the Bitcoin Savings and Trust promised investors up to 7% weekly interest, and raised at least 700,000 bitcoins from 2011 to 2012. In July 2013, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission charged the company and its founder in 2013 "with defrauding investors in a Ponzi scheme involving bitcoin". In September 2014 the judge fined Bitcoin Savings & Trust and its owner $40 million.
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.
As more and more miners competed for the limited supply of blocks, individuals found that they were working for months without finding a block and receiving any reward for their mining efforts. This made mining something of a gamble. To address the variance in their income miners started organizing themselves into pools so that they could share rewards more evenly. See Pooled mining and Comparison of mining pools.
All mining ASICs, Bitmain’s included, are performing essentially the same computation—the SHA-256 hashing algorithm—even if they go about it a bit differently. The standard algorithm takes 64 steps to complete, but in Bitcoin it is run twice for each block header, meaning a full round requires 128 steps that are heavy on integer addition. “That’s what dominates the whole design,” says Timo Hanke, the chief cryptographer at String Labs, a cryptography-focused incubator in Palo Alto, Calif. “So, if somebody was to optimize it, they have to optimize the adders. That’s where most of the work is.”
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.