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Often, when we think of "crypto OGs", names that usually come to mind are folks who bought bitcoin back before the 2013 bull run.
However, the reality is that there is a whole 25 years of cypherpunk history before the bitcoin whitepaper was published in '08. The true crypto pioneers were the folks who understood the importance of digital privacy before the internet was even relevant.
Satoshi didn't just build magical internet money out of the blue, it took efforts from hundreds of people over three decades slowly iterating on different concepts in the cryptography field.
Today, I want to flash back to 1992 and dive into the e-mail list that sparked the cypherpunk movement and the fight for digital freedom.
Although there are multiple places to start with learning the history of cryptography, I think it makes most sense to discuss the inception of the cypherpunk mailing list.
The Big 3: May, Hughes, & Gilmore rally the cypherpunks
Going Digital: SF meetup transitions to a digital forum focused on building
The Crypto Irony: Decentralizing the decentralizers
Let's dive in 🚀
The Big 3
As with any successful community, it takes a few bold and ambitious hustlers to rally a group of people around a vision. In the case of the cypherpunks - it was Tim May, John Gilmore, & Eric Hughes. In fact, it's these three geniuses that were featured (with masks) on a Wired article covering the Cypherpunks back in the spring of 1993.
All three of these SF based tech nerds were brilliant programmers. May was crucial in the development of Intel's memory chips. Gilmore was Sun Microsystems 5th employee. And Hughes was an adept mathematician who was deep in cryptography research.
In 1992, the trio decided to organize a meetup with their favorite programmers in the SF/Oakland area to have an open discussion about all things privacy, cryptography, and the ongoing dance between government surveillance and freedom fighters.
After the first meeting at Hughes' house, the early group of twenty decided to start meeting monthly at Gilmore's office (Cygnus Solutions). These meetups became a Disneyland for enthusiastic hackers interested in iterating on new, open source privacy mechanisms.
In fact, it was at these meetups where Jude Milhon (aka St. Jude) coined the term "cypherpunk". It was a blend of the words cipher + cyberpunk. I'll discuss Jude's story in another post but the tl;dr is that she was one of the earliest women in the tech & crypto space and did a ton of work to encourage girls to learn how to code.
Eventually, as the monthly club grew, they decided to start inviting more folks outside of the Bay Area. Eric Hughes set up an anonymous email system that was hosted on toad.com. And very quickly, the Cypherpunks started ballooning into a thriving, active community with people participating in early digital privacy discussion from all over the globe.
The Cypherpunks mailing list was started in 1992, and by 1994 had 700 subscribers. At its peak, it was a very active forum with technical discussion ranging over mathematics, cryptography, computer science, political and philosophical discussion, personal arguments and attacks, etc., with some spam thrown in. An email from John Gilmore reports an average of 30 messages a day from December 1, 1996 to March 1, 1999, and suggests that the number was probably higher earlier. The number of subscribers is estimated to have reached 2000 in the year 1997 (Cypherpunk Wikipedia page)
This mailing list served as an open forum for sharing radical ideas on privacy, cryptography, government, and freedom. Notable active posters include legends such as Adam Back, Wei Dai, Hal Finney, Nick Szabo, Phil Zimmerman, and many more crucial builders of the early cryptography days.
All posts are archived as well - it's quite interesting to go through some of the thousands of e-mails that were sent. Here's a snippet of the first one sent on September 21st, 1992.
These early privacy advocates had the foresight that the development of the internet was a double edged sword. As great as it was at enhancing digital communication, the internet could quickly be controlled & monitored by the government if no action was taken.
The cypherpunks, though they all had their separate motivations, were unified in the belief that centralized authorities could not be trusted. It's not necessarily that they wanted to get rid of the government (i.e. the exaggerated anarchist narrative) but instead wanted to enforce transparency on how institutions were using technology to help citizens - just stating protection as a blanket reason wasn't good enough.
Individual privacy is a central human right.
Much of the debates covered the pros and cons of how much cryptography should be available to the public, given its potential for both empowering individuals and enabling illegal activity. Some believed that immediate action was needed while others were okay limiting to fun, theoretical conversation.
Additionally, many noteworthy deliverables such as the "Cypherpunk Manifesto", The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, and anonymous remailers came out of these e-mail threads.
The Crypto Irony
By 1997, there were about 2000 subscribers to the list. The amount of content was growing too fast to control and members started to get suspicious of quality measures that were taking place. For example, many Cypherpunks were frustrated that Gilmore was filtering through spam messages. Who was he to decide which messages should or should not be kept? Seems centralized...
Finally, to solve the chaos going on, Jim Choate and Igor Chudov set up a distributed architecture for the remailer system.
With the decentralized remailer, there was no single point of failure for the community. All messages and timestamps were kept as long as a node was running.
2000-2013 - The list operated via a distributed architecture using the Majordomo mailing list software with a peak of 7 nodes. By mid-2005 al-qaeda.net hosted the only remaining node. Following a brief outage caused by the failure of the al-qaeda.net majordomo installation during a package update, the mailing list was relaunched in July 2013 using GNU Mailman. This meant an end to the distributed architecture, but there had been only one node for 8 years at this point.
Though the prolific e-mail list had been shut down by the turn of the century, there's no doubt that these prescient discussions on privacy in the mid-90s set the tone for the advancement of crypto for the 2000s. Governments (i.e. British, French, American) realized that controlling the internet was not going to be a straightforward task.
It's crucial to understand the early days of cryptography to get a sense of why we're building in the crypto space today. Many of the problems we face today regarding privacy (i.e. social media giants) are not different from what folks like Eric Hughes predicted 30 years ago. The mission has stayed the same, but the community has dramatically grown.
Without the efforts of these early pioneers tinkering around with privacy tooling back in the 90s, it's quite unlikely we would have bitcoin, ethereum, and "web3" today.
That's all for today's post - if you enjoyed, I'd love for you to share with your friends in crypto :)
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