The first time I heard about blockchains was at a party where a friend of mine spent the night talking my ear off about this thing called Bitcoin and why I ought to buy some. I suspect that many others have had a similar experience. Although Bitcoin can be credited with bringing blockchains—a type of distributed digital ledger—into popular discourse, it wasn't the progenitor of the obscure technology's key features.
In fact, the world's oldest blockchain predates Bitcoin by 13 years and it's been hiding in plain sight, printed weekly in the classified section of one of the world's most widely circulated newspapers: The New York Times.
At its core, a blockchain is just a database that is maintained by a network of users and secured through cryptography. When new information is added to the database it is parceled in "blocks," which can be thought of as containers for this data. Every so often a new block is created and linked to a "chain" of previously created blocks. Each block has a unique ID called a hash that is created by running the ID of the block that preceded it and the data stored in the current block through a cryptographic algorithm. This ensures the integrity of all the data stored on the blockchain because altering the data in any block would produce a different hash.
Today, "blockchain" is treated as shorthand for the technology that underlies most cryptocurrencies and digital token systems, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. Although blockchains can be used as an immutable record of financial transactions, this is far from their only use. In fact, any type of information can be added to a blockchain and in the past everything from weed strains and virtual kittens to sushi and rare art has been stored on a distributed ledger.
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