Hal Finney , by his full name Harold Thomas Finney II , was originally one of the famous cypherpunks . A cryptographer, developer, and father of two, he is best known in the cryptocurrency world as the first person to receive a BTC transaction from the famous Satoshi Nakamoto .
He is therefore rightly considered to be one of the pioneers of the crypto-asset industry. Unfortunately, he began to suffer from Charcot’s disease when Bitcoin was born. Here is a glimpse into the life of this extraordinary man.
Birth, youth and formation
Harold Finney was born on May 4, 1956, in the small town of Coalinga, California, which at the time had just under 6,000 inhabitants. But he didn’t stay there long. Her father, a long-time employee of Union Oil of California, was regularly forced to change homes for work.
So he moved from city to city, spending most of his time in the Los Angeles area with his unemployed mother and siblings. Unlike his brothers, Hal Finney was particularly diligent in school, and very interested in puzzles or other intellectual exercises.
From kindergarten (5 to 10 years old in the United States), he had been interested in basic forms of cryptography, and had fun writing simplistic codes based on numbers and letters. And when he arrived in high school (14 to 18 years old in the United States), around 1970, he had the chance to study at Arcadia High School, very close to Los Angeles, whose teachers had computers, very rare at the time. Very quickly, he made a place for himself among the high school computer scientists, and helped them to code small programs thanks to the punched cards used by the computers of the time.
Punched cards used to operate computers in the 1970s
In 1974, Hal Finney obtained his high school diploma (equivalent of the baccalaureate), being valedictorian with an almost perfect score, and a place reserved at the famous California Institute of Technology, a university better known by its nickname of ” CalTech “.
When he arrived at the coveted University of California, Hal Finney started with a degree in math, but quickly turned to engineering. And since there were no “computing” courses at the time, he simply selected as many computer-related courses as possible. Indeed, in the United States, it is often possible for students to choose a large number of subjects in their studies.
In return, Hal will reduce the number of courses in literary subjects as much as possible. While the latter were compulsory at CalTech, his wife would later indicate that he did not even bother to go to class, and that he was content to take the exams for these subjects.
It was at university that Hal Finney met Fran, less than a month after the latter entered university. Having found themselves in the same dormitory, they quickly became friends.
After Fran graduated in 1976, they fell in love. And in 1979, after Hal graduated, they got married in a park in San Diego.
Hal Finney started his career at APh in 1978 as a developer.
Indeed, having chosen not to go to physical education classes, which were compulsory at CalTech, Hal Finney had to retake his last year to validate this subject and obtain his diploma. This left him plenty of time to work, so he got down to it as soon as possible.
Founded by former students of CalTech four years before (and in particular Dave Rolfe, whom he knew well), the APh company was already working with big names like Mattel (in this case, for the design of the Intellivision).
During the few years spent at APh, Hal notably worked on games for the Intellivision and Atari ST consoles. Here you will find an incomplete list of titles he has worked on.
On this subject, he said: “I never really thought of myself as a developer of games mainly. I was more of a generalist developer for assembly language.”
Indeed, Hal Finney had not only worked on video games: the company had also asked him to code software for cash registers, a spectrometer for the company “Bausch + Lomb”, and camera control software for a Hollywood special effects company.
Until the video game crash of 1983, Hal Finney remained an employee of APh Technologies Consulting.
After the crash, he became an operating systems developer for Ametek. Then he moved to Santa Barbara in 1991, going to work at Greenhill Software on code compilers.
Hal Finney working for APh in 1978 – Left to right: Hal Finney, David Rolfe, Will McCown
Experience in cryptography
It was a little before, in 1990, that the Finney family had their first internet subscription with Prodigy (the second largest ISP at the time). And with the internet, Hal Finney discovered cypherpunks. Having always been a freedom-loving man, he quickly got involved in this heterogeneous group of geeks linked together by a mailing list.
Shortly after, Hal made a name for himself by developing the first anonymous mail transfer server ( remailer ), which allows an email to be sent to a particular recipient without revealing the origin of the said mail. A very useful tool for cypherpunks, attached to their anonymity.
In 1992, Hal Finney wrote, in true cypherpunk spirit: “Here we face the problems of loss of privacy, progressive computerization, massive databases, increasing centralization, and Chaum offers a completely different direction to go in, a [direction] that puts power in the hands of individuals rather than in those of governments and corporations.The computer can be used as a tool to liberate and protect people, rather than to control them.”
Quickly, he was contacted by Phil Zimmermann , a famous computer scientist, who had a proposal for him. Indeed, he asked Hal Finney to help him develop an early version of Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP. Hal Finney accepted, even if this work was carried out without any counterpart, because he was convinced that this program could be useful to all those who fight for freedom, such as journalists in countries subjected to dictatorships.
But that wasn’t the only reason: working on this project was risky, and it was better for Hal Finney’s safety that his name not be directly associated with the project. And very quickly, the US government declared Phil Zimmermann an enemy of the nation and then investigated him for three years. Indeed, it was forbidden to export encryption programs abroad.
But after three years, the government dropped the charges, and Zimmermann was able to found PGP Inc. Very quickly, Hal Finney was hired, and began his career as a professional cryptologist.
A few years later, the company was acquired by Network Associates, and Hal Finney also worked for them, continuing to look after PGP and its successor software.
In 2004, 5 years before the creation of Bitcoin, he managed to develop a first version of a currency system based on Proof of Work , called RPOW. But this project did not work.
Screenshot of the site dedicated to RPOW, Hal Finney’s attempt to create a cryptocurrency“>cryptocurrency
The Bitcoin Years
Hal Finney discovered Bitcoin through the mailing lists he had been on since 1992. When Satoshi Nakamoto published the Bitcoin White Paper, Hal was most likely one of its first readers.
He recounts his discovery of Bitcoin on Bitcointalk in a post dated March 19, 2013 : “When Satoshi announced Bitcoin on the crypto mailing list, he got a skeptical reception at best. Cryptologists have seen too much grandiose ideas imagined by naive noobs. […]
I was more positive. I had long been interested in crypto payment systems. Additionally, I was lucky enough to have met and spoken extensively with Wei Dai and Nick Szabo, generally credited with creating concepts that would come to fruition with Bitcoin. I had made an attempt to create my own proof-of-work currency called RPOW. So I found Bitcoin fascinating.
When Satoshi announced the release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I believe I am the first person other than Satoshi to launch Bitcoin software. I mined the 70-something block, and was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent me 10 coins to test . I conversed with Satoshi via email for the next few days, mostly reporting bugs and he was fixing them.”
Adherent to the same philosophy as Bitcoin from the first hour , Hal Finney was therefore the first person to receive a transaction in BTC .
Unfortunately for him, as he explained, he didn’t mine bitcoin for very long: “After a few days bitcoin was pretty stable, so I left it running. That was when the difficulty was 1 , and you could find blocks with a processor (CPU) , not a graphics card (GPU) I mined several blocks over the following days, but I turned it off because it made my computer heat up, and the noise fan bothered me. In retrospect, I wish I had left it on longer, but on the other hand, I was extraordinarily lucky to have been there in the beginning.”
Tweet from Hal Finney shortly after his discovery of Bitcoin
The disease and its end of life
In 2008, in an attempt to slow down the sinking of old age, Hal Finney started running half-marathons, then marathons. Accustomed to running since his university years, he had registered for several sporting events. And in the 2009 Los Angeles Spring Marathon, he failed to finish the course.
Shortly after, he had to stop again in the middle of a bike ride, despite his experience in the field. In July 2009, he was forced to stop again in the middle of a sporting course which should have been easy for him.
A week later, Hal Finney learned that he suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Charcot’s disease (Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, in English).
Destructive and incurable, Charcot’s disease destroys the neurons that control the body’s muscles. First, movement becomes difficult, then talking, eating, breathing… Hal Finney became more and more paralyzed, but never let the disease destroy him. He says in particular: “Even with the ALS, my life is very satisfying.”
During the last year of his life, he was the victim of several extortion attempts, because of his supposed wealth in bitcoins. But none of these attempts worked, because he had spent almost everything on treating his illness, long before the price of bitcoin soared above $1,000.
In 2014, the disease began to progress very quickly, and his cognitive functions began to be affected. Refusing to lose his mind, Hal Finney chose, like the rest of his life, to have faith in humanity and the future. He went to Scottsdale, to visit the Alcor company.
There, Hal Finney legally died on August 28, 2014 , at 9:00 a.m., almost two days after the machines keeping him alive went offline. But very quickly, the various fluids of his body were replaced by others, more resistant to freezing, and his body was cryogenized.
Hal Finney’s hope was that technology would advance far enough that one day he could emerge from his icy coffin, alive, and free of Charcot’s disease.
His wife Fran Finney said of it: “I know Hal wanted to be there. He wanted to live the future. […]
He just wanted to see what the world would become, because it was going to be such an amazing and wonderful place. […]
He didn’t believe in God, he believed in the future.”
Hal Finney with Charcot’s disease
Hal Finney is one of the key players who have brought their stone to the building of crypto-currencies. Without people of his talent, the world of digital currencies as we know it today might never have seen the light of day.
He had lived for 10 years in the same town as a certain Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto , and some have concluded that he was Satoshi Nakamoto. But he always denied it, until his “death”.
This question will certainly remain unanswered until we discover the true identity of Satoshi Nakamoto… Or perhaps until Hal Finney comes back to life.