Gavin Andresen is one of the most influential Bitcoin developers and “an all-around geek”. One of the household names in the Bitcoin community and the successor of Satoshi Nakamoto as lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core – Gavin has been with the project since its early days.
This article isn’t your traditional, emotionally charged opinion piece; it is, rather, a fact-based, coherent chronology that aims to provide you with the most notable events in Gavin’s involvement with Bitcoin. What you take of it is entirely up to you. Let’s dive right in!
Life, education and professional engagement
Gavin Andresen was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1966 as “Gavin Bell”. He moved to the United States at the age of five and grew up in Seattle, WA; Anchorage, AK; and the Santa Ynez Valley, CA. After graduating from Princeton University (1984-1988) where he got his degree in Computer Science, Gavin started working as a software engineer at Silicon Graphics Computer Systems and stayed there for 8 years, mostly focusing on 3D graphics (VRML and Open Inventor). According to his LinkedIn profile, he left SGI in May, 1996, and founded Wasabi Software (1996-2000), where he created SkyPaint – a tool for painting and editing 3D wraparound panoramas. In 1996 he wrote most of the VRML 2.0 specification, and also published a reference manual for it. Up until 2011, Andresen worked on VOIP technologies at Resounding Technologies (later at HearMe) (1998-2001), created online multiplayer games for blind and sighted people at All inPlay (2001-2005), developed tools for Prosper lenders, lead the implementation of a CMS at Gravity Switch (2004-2007), and worked on a digital library/search engine covering the computer science research literature at the Information Extraction and Synthesis Laboratory group – University of Massachusetts Amherst (2007-2009).
The Bitcoin Faucet
Andresen first heard about Bitcoin in May, 2010, from an InfoWorld article. He wanted the project to succeed, and he thought the best way for that to happen is for people to get their hands on some coins and play around. So, he bought 10,000 bitcoins for $50 and in June, 2010, he created the Bitcoin Faucet – a website that awarded five bitcoins to every visitor. The Bitcoin Faucet was online until 2012, during which time the reward size gradually decreased to match Bitcoin’s rise in popularity. This is the first Bitcoin-related project that Gavin undertook, but certainly not his last. During this time, he also started submitting code to Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto, with whom he communicated via email.
On December 7, 2010, Andresen introduced ClearCoin, a bitcoin escrow service. The purpose of ClearCoin was to provide its users, both buyers and sellers, with a stable platform on which they can safely transact using bitcoins. ClearCoin offered refunds to unsatisfied buyers and helped sellers reassure hesitant customers. He announced the service was going to close in June, 2011, in a post on the BitcoinTalk forum, saying that the reason the service was being shut down is because, between ClearCoin and Bitcoin Core, he just couldn’t do quality work on both projects at the same time. However, he didn’t exclude the possibility of ClearCoin coming back “at some point in the future [when enough] behind-the-scenes work is done to make it a robust, scalable business.”
Disappearance of Satoshi Nakamoto
On December 12, 2010, Satoshi posted his final message on the BitcoinTalk forum. A week later, in a discussion about Bitcoin’s development process, Gavin wrote: “With Satoshi’s blessing, and with great reluctance, I’m going to start doing more active project management for bitcoin.” Of course, no one connected the dots at the time, considering Satoshi’s last post was in regards to DoS attacks. Questions about his absence fell on deaf ears; after more than two years, on February 25, 2013, early Bitcoin developer Mike Hearn finally spoke out: “[Satoshi] communicated with a few of the core developers before leaving. He told myself and Gavin that he had moved on to other things and that the project was in good hands.”
Lead developer of Bitcoin Core
As we came to know years later, Satoshi stepped back and the lead maintainer position fell on Andresen’s shoulders, who proved he possessed the necessary technical knowledge and management skills for the job. He was now in charge of the maintenance and development of Bitcoin Core – the Bitcoin software client (also known as the Satoshi client) that was renamed in order to be distinguishable from the Bitcoin network.
It made sense that Gavin would be one of the top candidates to inherit Satoshi’s role in the development of Bitcoin; he had previous experience as project leader and he’d been heavily involved with Bitcoin since the moment he came across it. According to an interview for MIT Technology Review, Gavin invested himself in Bitcoin purely out of “enlightened self-interest,” and because “this was a project that [he] wanted to see succeed.” To him, Bitcoin held an immense amount of potential, and he dedicated himself to bringing the currency to millions of people as fast as possible. The future of Bitcoin Core was now in the hands of five core developers, with Gavin as the face of the team.
Back in 2011, Bitcoin wasn’t the finished product we see today; in the words of Mike Hearn, “[Satoshi] released Bitcoin to prove his ideas would work. […] It wasn’t written to be a long-term sustainable product.” Bitcoin was still facing various security issues and was vulnerable to attacks. Not even the code was up-to-code. Although Satoshi was a “brilliant coder”, his coding style was… unconventional. The code contained redundant sections, bugs, and it wasn’t exactly robust. All of this meant that the core developers would have their hands full for quite some time – so much so that, after these changes, less than one third of Satoshi’s original code remained.
Gavin had a rather aggressive approach; while it’s common practice to make small, incremental adjustments to the code and refrain from radical changes that could jeopardize the project’s overall success, he was eager to do as much as possible in as little time as possible. One of Gavin’s more notable ideas was the one of incrementing the block size in order to maximise the number of processed transactions in a single block. This was already proposed by Satoshi himself in an email he sent to Mike Hearn in 2010: “A higher [block size] limit can be phased in once we have actual use closer to the [current] limit and make sure it’s working OK.” Satoshi, however, emphasized that this change, as inevitable as it is, needs to be implemented in the right time – when it proves to be a necessity and when the developers are certain it’s going to work as planned.
“Gavin will visit the CIA”
In late April, 2011, less than half a year since he became lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core, Andresen announced that he was going to give a presentation about Bitcoin at an “emerging technologies conference for the US intelligence community” that was going to be held at CIA headquarters. In the announcement made on the BitcoinTalk forum, he explained that he accepted the invitation to speak because he felt like the very fact that he was invited spoke volumes about the government’s interest in Bitcoin, and this would be a great opportunity to clarify the goals of Bitcoin that are, in many ways, compatible to the goals of government.
My talk at the CIA went well today. The hallways there are REALLY wide, and full of interesting stuff.
— Gavin Andresen (@gavinandresen) June 14, 2011
The conference took place on June 14, 2011. A week after that, Gavin wrote a post on BitcoinTalk, summing up his experience at the event; he spoke about the project and answered some questions, ranging from price instability up to the moral issues of using Bitcoin. He presented Bitcoin for what it is – the new kid on the block; “not ‘bitcoin will take over the world’ but ‘bitcoin is a very interesting experiment that could be world-changing if it works out.’” This viewpoint is in keeping with a tweet he posted just a week before the event:
@jaimenm @tav : bitcoin is an experiment: maybe it WILL fail as a currency, but succeed as a commodity: Gold 2.0 versus Dollar 2.0
— Gavin Andresen (@gavinandresen) June 9, 2011
Gavin has stated in multiple occasions that he doesn’t advise people to invest their life savings into Bitcoin. Bitcoin is, first and foremost, an experiment; even though it has a dedicated development team and a passionate community behind it, it can still fail as a digital currency. In Gavin’s opinion, in order for Bitcoin to lose the title of an “experiment,” three conditions need to be fulfilled: regulatory clarity, ease of use, and the elimination of the single-point-of-failure (compromisation of private keys). Some members of the community have criticized this way of thinking, especially because it comes from such an influential figure. Whether a more confident approach would outweigh the risks of reassuring people in something as volatile as Bitcoin is something to think about. In this regard, Gavin is playing it safe and choosing his words carefully.
The Bitcoin Foundation
In October, 2011, Gavin presented to the community the idea of a Bitcoin Foundation. The goal of the foundation would be to prepare the world for the radically decentralized system that is Bitcoin, and make a step towards the officialization and long-term success of the project. He proposed the formation of a non-profit organization that, among other things, would serve as a centralized entity that would interact with the legal system regarding issues like trademarking and controlling the bitcoin.org domain.; would act as a library for accurate information about the project; would collect donations that will then be used to organize developers’ conferences/get-togethers, pay salaries for developers, create a central clearinghouse for informations about legal issues regarding Bitcoin; etc.
He wanted to get the project off the ground as fast as possible and refine it over time, and the community supported the initiative. The Bitcoin Foundation was officially opened less than a year later, in September, 2012, with Gavin Andresen (appointed as chief scientist), Roger Ver, Charlie Shrem, Peter Vessenes, Mark Karpelès and Patrick Murck as the original members. It is funded mostly through grants made by for-profit companies that have a business interest in the Bitcoin technology, as well as through membership fees. Any enthusiast can join the foundation for a small monthly or annual fee, and receive benefits such as participation in the annual planning process for Bitcoin Foundation advocacy and training programs; access to exclusive discounts and special offers for foundation and partner events and products; access to a dedicated members-only Telegram group and monthly newsletter; receiving a monthly members-only financial and operational update from the Executive Director; etc.
The foundation, unfortunately, suffered through a lot of controversies mostly to do with some of its members, starting with vice chairman Charlie Shrem’s money laundering scandal in January, 2014, and board member Mark Karpelès’ Mt. Gox scandal in February, 2014, with many more to come. Gavin left the role of lead maintainer of Bitcoin Core in April, 2014, and handed the position over to Wladimir van der Laan.
Two sides of the same coin
For one thing, as time went on, Andresen did less and less work for the project but kept the title of lead maintainer. In an interview for CoinDesk, Wladimir van der Laan said that “not only was [Andresen] not writing code, he wasn’t discussing on the developer IRC nor on GitHub, nor reviewing code.” According to his colleagues, he passed on these responsibilities to van der Laan. In the same interview, such notion was expressed by Eric Lombrozo, Bitcoin Core contributor: “[Andresen] still paraded himself around as the leader, as someone that had control.”
For another thing, Andresen was impatient to implement bigger blocks to the extent that he started circumventing Bitcoin Core’s communication channels to make that happen as fast as possible. What started as a post on Gavin’s blog, quickly revealed the disagreements that he had on the subject with the rest of the core development team.
Let’s roll back for some context. In October, 2014, Andresen did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit. One reddit user was curious about the way that enhancements/changes are made to the Bitcoin protocol — more precisely, who has to approve those changes before work begins. Gavin responded:
““Rough consensus’ -- I’ve got to convince Wladimir and Pieter and Jeff and Greg that the change is good, and convince enough other developers who are watching so they don’t raise a huge stink.”- Gavin Andersen
In April the following year, Gavin and Mike Hearn spoke at CoinScrum event in London, where they discussed the block size issue. On the topic, he stated: “A lot of people are pushing me to be more of a dictator […] That may be what has to happen with the block size, frankly. I may just have to throw my weight around and say, ‘This is the way it’s going to be. And if you don’t like it, find another project.'” This was only a month before Gavin started advocating bigger blocks and, as it turned out, set the course for his actions from there on.
In the CoinDesk interview, Lombrozo went on to explain that long-time Bitcoin developer Matt Corallo saw Gavin’s blog posts and showed them to the Core mailing list. The reason why the posts struck a nerve with the core developers group is because there were existing communication channels where such topics are supposed to be discussed. Andresen seemed to bypass those channels and present his ideas directly to the public, thus skipping the process of peer review. As Lombrozo puts it, “it wasn’t the block size thing really”, but the fact that he went around the whole system that upset everyone. Things got even more complicated when, according to Lombrozo, Andresen started selling his unreviewed solution to the block size limit to Coinbase, BitPay, Blockchain, Xapo, and other bitcoin companies. Some core developers expressed their concern about certain technical issues with the proposal; Andresen, however, told the companies that a simple fix existed, but the Core team didn’t want to help. “There’s the perception, which still remains a point of contention today, that the Core development team is stubborn and uninterested in helping bitcoin businesses and in turn extending bitcoin to more and more consumers around the world,” Lombrozo said.
Many core developers didn’t support Andresen’s idea and reacted to it in a “less than ideal” manner, and he never really found a way to go around that unpleasantness and present his solution to his colleagues. The core development team had even asked him, in more than one occasion, “to voluntarily step down from (mis)representing Bitcoin Core to the wider community.” So, he collaborated with Mike Hearn and pushed Bitcoin XT – a fork of Bitcoin Core that briefly implemented Gavin’s BIP 101 proposal for an increase in the maximum block size.
In the aftermath of these events, many core developers felt like they’d been betrayed, while others tried to bridge the gap with Andresen. He remained cordial and friendly in his official communication, but his reputation within the community was hanging by a thread.
Craig Wright is Satoshi Nakamoto
Gavin’s unfortunate streak didn’t end with the block size dispute. Once again, he left the community aghast when, on May 2, 2016, he published a blog post expressing his belief that the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto was actually Craig Steven Wright, an Australian computer scientist. In his post, Gavin told his readers that he met with Wright in London after “an initial email conversation convinced [him] that there was a very good chance [Wright] was the same person [Gavin had] communicated with in 2010 and early 2011.” He went on to say that “after spending time with him, [he is] convinced beyond a reasonable doubt: Craig Wright is Satoshi.” Wright managed to convince Andresen that he was, indeed, the (once) anonymous creator of Bitcoin by providing him with cryptographic proof of his identity i.e. by verifying messages that were signed with private keys that only Satoshi should possess. But even before that, after a simple conversation, Gavin was “reasonably certain [he] was sitting next to the Father of Bitcoin.”
On that same day, Bitcoin Foundation board member and former Executive Director Jon Matonis published a similar blog post, also stating his belief that Craig Wright is Satoshi after “a proof session in London.”
Unsurprisingly, the Bitcoin community simply wasn’t buying it — and for a very good reason; Wright’s demonstration happened behind closed doors, which meant that the rest of the world would have to take Gavin’s word for its legitimacy. As Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin elegantly put it: “If you have a good way of proving something and a noisy way of proving something, and you choose the noisy way then, chances are, it’s because you couldn’t do it the good way in the first place.”
What might’ve been the result of naivety and good intentions ended up costing Andresen a lot. In a matter of days, on May 6, 2016, Wladimir van der Laan shared his take on the events. He, too, felt that this was an elaborate hoax, but was unsure about Gavin’s role in it, saying that “at the very least he [Gavin] is confused”. Gavin confirmed that it was indeed him that wrote the controversial blog post at the Consensus NYC 2016 event, which removed any suspicion that his blog had been hacked.
Gavin had stated in the past that “Satoshi can have write access to the github repo anytime he asks,” so van der Laan felt like there was a risk that Gavin would hand out the access to the repository to Wright. As a result, van der Laan immediately revoked Gavin’s ownership of the github bitcoin organization, under which the Bitcoin Core repository lied.
The lead maintainer went on to justify his decision by reminding his readers that Gavin hadn’t been active as a developer for a long time as it was (with his last contribution to Bitcoin Core being in February 2016), and revoking his commit access was merely adhering to the principle of least privilege: “The principle means giving a user account only those privileges which are essential to perform its intended function.” While van der Laan had no problem with Gavin’s decision to “move on to other things”, he did clarify that Gavin (and everyone else for that matter) shouldn’t expect to find things exactly the way they left them when they decide to come back. Gavin had been asked to give up his github privileges both by van der Laan and other people, but he always responded that he’d “sleep on it.”
“It was time to revoke those privileges anyway.”
Finally, van der Laan concluded by answering one last question: if the opportunity arises, should Andresen be made maintainer again? His answer: No.
“For one, there is just no point, as he wasn’t acting as a maintainer for Bitcoin Core anymore in the first place, and in addition to that, many feel that we can be more productive if we separate our ways.”
@jerrybrito Ask me in six months; I don't trust my own judgement right now after all the drama.
— Gavin Andresen (@gavinandresen) May 5, 2016
Gavin revisited the Craig Wright issue half a year later when he posted another blog entry, expressing his ”regret about ever getting involved in the “who was Satoshi” game” and announcing that he will be spending his time on “more fun and productive pursuits.”
While he’d been tweeting about the block size limitation, he avoided getting himself involved with the press. In 2017, Gavin confirmed for CoinDesk that he resigned from both the Bitcoin foundation and MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative earlier that year, and that he co-signed an unreleased bitcoin scaling proposal put forward by Barry Silbert, founder of Digital Currency Group. He’d also been involved with Zcash (to some extent), and with several other cryptocurrency projects as an advisor — all the while working on “a stealth project.” That mysterious endeavour might’ve been the Random Sanity Project Gavin tweeted about later on. At the beginning of this year, on January 2, Gavin made a Github contribution called “Storing UTXO as a bit-vector”, an idea intended for the Bitcoin Cash network.
According to the contributors page of the Bitcoin github repository, Andresen has added 64,000 lines of code and removed another 76,000. He has also created the Bitcoin Testnet (the first alt-coin), as well as twelve BIPs (Bitcoin Improvement Proposals), most of which were accepted as a formal standard. While his contributions to Bitcoin as a developer, but also as a spokesman have been of great importance to the project, he also had his fair share of misjudgements that reflected poorly on Bitcoin’s reputation.
After all, he was the first person to inherit the reins when Satoshi left as mysteriously as he arrived. Bitcoin was facing a pivotal moment in its history, and it was Gavin who took the wheel and saw things through to the best of his abilities.
Perhaps the most suitable way to conclude this chronological journey through Andresen’s history with Bitcoin is with a quote that, funny enough, Gavin intended for Satoshi:
“We love to create heroes – but also seem to love hating them if they don’t live up to some unattainable ideal.”- Gavin Andersen