Released as an open-source software in 2009, Bitcoin is often credited as the world’s first cryptocurrency and is best defined as a digital currency that only exists electronically.
Bitcoin is decentralized, meaning it doesn’t have a central issuing authority or political institution that controls the amount of bitcoin in circulation. But the Bitcoin platform is far from anarchy.
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
Instead of relying on a government to print new currency, Bitcoin’s blockchain programming handles when bitcoins are made and how many are produced. It also keeps track of where bitcoins are and ensures the transactions are accurate.
There are currently about 17 million bitcoins in circulation. There isn’t a central regulatory agency or government controlling the supply of bitcoins, meaning the supply is controlled by design. The total supply to ever be created is capped at 21 million bitcoins.
This cap raises an argument that Bitcoin could have problems scaling. However, since Bitcoin is essentially infinitesimally divisible (meaning users can transfer as little as 0.00000001 bitcoins), this doesn’t really create a scaling issue. The magic number of 21 million is arbitrary.