On Jan. 3, 2009, an anonymous developer called Satoshi Nakamoto made history when he (or she, or they) released the Genesis Block, the original block containing the first 50 bitcoins, onto Sourceforge. Unlike any of the 502,000+ blocks that came after, Nakamoto left a message in the code of the block:
"The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks"
That line comes straight from the headline of a London Times article dated Jan. 3, 2009, which detailed banks being bailed out by the British government. While Nakamoto never clearly stated the meaning of the message, many have interpreted it as a reference to why Nakamoto developed Bitcoin: to cut out the banks and middlemen that he saw as corrupt and unreliable, electing to create a more people-driven currency. (Related: How Bitcoin Works and our helpful infographic, What is Bitcoin?)
The origin of the Genesis Block is as shrouded in mystery as Nakamoto himself, with questions remaining about why the bitcoins within the original block remain unspendable, why the subsequent block took 6 days to mine, and why people still transfer bitcoin into the Genesis Block.
Let There Be Bitcoin!
The Genesis Block, also known as Block 0, is the ancestor that every other bitcoin block can trace its lineage back to, since every bitcoin traces back to a past one. Nakamoto mined the original block on a CPU (as opposed to the specialized graphics cards miners now need) without any competition, since nobody even knew it existed at the time and it wasn't worth anything anyway – at least in fiat terms. Back then, Bitcoin was more of an experiment than anything, and it would still take around a year before it started to catch on. It would be incredibly easy for current miners to solve these blocks, which were set at difficulty 1, a far cry from the current bitcoin difficulty of 1,922,580,604,980. (Related: How does Bitcoin Mining Work?)
The next block, known as Block 1, wasn't mined until six days later, on Jan. 9. This is considered odd, as the average timestamp gap between blocks is 10 minutes. There are a few theories regarding the delay: Some have theorized that Nakamoto spent six days mining the original block to test out the Bitcoin system in order to make sure it was stable (then backdated the timestamp), while more spiritual followers believe he intended to recreate the story of God's rest after creating the world in six days.
In Honor of Satoshi
While the original Genesis Block contained 50 bitcoins, people have been sending the address bitcoins in tribute to Nakamoto since the early days of the system. These donations and tips take on an even more symbolic meaning as its quite possible that they are unable to be spent when they join the original address. It's unknown if Nakamoto's intent was to not let the 50 bitcoins in the original block be spendable or if it was an oversight, but the Genesis Block has become synonymous with Nakamoto and exists as both the backbone of the entire project and as a kind of shrine for fans of Nakamoto to throw their bitcoins into, kind of like a wishing well.
The Genesis Block remains, for many Bitcoin devotees, the key to identifying Nakamoto himself. The idea is that only Nakamoto would be able to use the private key associated with the block and other early blocks to sign a message. If someone was able to sign messages using the private keys of the original blocks, it would offer solid evidence that they are Nakamoto.
A Benevolent God
Nakamoto mined bitcoins for a few years after creating the Genesis Block, and because he had little competition and the original blocks had 50 coins within, he easily became the largest holder of bitcoin, a title he keeps to this day with an estimated 1 million bitcoins. Nakamoto hasn't moved his coins since disappearing entirely in 2011, and never made any effort to cash out even before disappearing.
Nakamoto's disappearance is generally a calming absence for Bitcoin miners, because if he ever decided to return, it could wreak havoc on the entire infrastructure. Basically, should Nakamoto ever have the whim, he could flood the market with his one million bitcoins, essentially annihilating the worth of the currency by introducing so much of it into the system, since an individual bitcoin would become significantly less rare and thus worth far less.
Perhaps the extra bitcoin offerings found in the Genesis Block are meant as a quasi-religious sacrifice, or perhaps as a small "thank you" to the anonymous creator. Either way, Nakamoto casts a long shadow over his creation, and as Bitcoin climbs further into the mainstream, more and more attention is given to the hints he left in the Genesis Block.