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The Incorruptible Audit Trail (A Brief History)

By Crypto Eric | Blockchain Auditor | 4 Feb 2021

On the shoulders of others

When we look at Blockchain, the (networks of) global, public, transparent, cryptographically-supported audit trail(s) that undergirds Bitcoin and its followers, we paean Satoshi Nakamoto, the name that appears on the Bitcoin whitepaper. You have heard, from me and others, the names of those on whose shoulders blockchain (and Bitcoin) were built. 

I will start with some of the more recent, but then go back 100 years. The idea that "trustlessness" can be supported by technology (how do you tempt or otherwise corrupt a machine?), and that a permanent record of individual transactions permits later audit by those not monitoring things in real time, and a chain of amounts can change the way business is done, is not a new concept. Akron, Ohio may understand this better than most.

From the whitepaper

From the whitepaper itself, we see a number of names, some more familiar than others.

[1] W. Dai, "b-money,", 1998.
[2] H. Massias, X.S. Avila, and J.-J. Quisquater, "Design of a secure timestamping service with minimal
trust requirements," In 20th Symposium on Information Theory in the Benelux, May 1999.
[3] S. Haber, W.S. Stornetta, "How to time-stamp a digital document," In Journal of Cryptology, vol 3, no
2, pages 99-111, 1991.
[4] D. Bayer, S. Haber, W.S. Stornetta, "Improving the efficiency and reliability of digital time-stamping,"
In Sequences II: Methods in Communication, Security and Computer Science, pages 329-334, 1993.
[5] S. Haber, W.S. Stornetta, "Secure names for bit-strings," In Proceedings of the 4th ACM Conference
on Computer and Communications Security, pages 28-35, April 1997.
[6] A. Back, "Hashcash - a denial of service counter-measure,", 2002.
[7] R.C. Merkle, "Protocols for public key cryptosystems," In Proc. 1980 Symposium on Security and
Privacy, IEEE Computer Society, pages 122-133, April 1980.
[8] W. Feller, "An introduction to probability theory and its applications," 1957.  

Mentioned three times (Ref 3, 4, 5) are Stuart Haber and Scott Stornetta. Known by many as the Fathers of the Proto-blockchain, their research into timestamping and commercialization of blockchain technology back in 1995 with, proving the integrity of digital files with blocks and hashes and Merkle trees are the basis of the modern blockchain. And there are no Merkle trees without Ralph Merkle (Ref 7).

Not to minimize the contributions of the other named references, I will move on nonetheless.

From the "more recent" annals

Our next group are the other names sometimes thrown out as "potential Satoshis".

Nick Szabo is often mentioned, both as the mind behind smart contracts many years before that concept was picked up in Ethereum, and for 2005's Bit Gold, many concepts of which are now forged indelibly into Bitcoin.

David Chaum, in his own words is "widely recognized as the inventor of digital cash", with blockchain-like ideas published 40 years back (e.g.

I'm sorry to not mention any number of others whose names deserve mention, but I want to go back a lot further than the 1970s-1990s and introduce a name fewer people are familiar with.

From the 1800s

Do you know the name James Ritty? Probably not. You may know the name of a company that became famous because of his invention, although he did not benefit as he might have: NCR.

There is a patent registered, dated November 3, 1879 for Ritty's improvement to the cash register, which in its third iteration was known as RItty's Incorruptible Cashier. The third version included for the first time indicators visible to both customer and vendor so the amount of every transaction was now public to all who could see.

In its fourth iteration, a paper roll was added where each key press would make a hole in the paper for later audit. Now transactions were not only public, but auditable and "immutable".

The machines didn't have a cash drawer and had many other drawbacks, but putting them in place proved to make store recordkeeping more reliable.

While we don't know Mr. Ritty and his "incorruptible cashier" as we might today, we may know the company that grew based on his invention (National Manufacturing Company of Dayton, Ohio, later National Cash Register Company and now NCR). And for those who don't recognize NCR, perhaps you recognize the name of one of its most famous alumni. A salesman turned manager, with a successful history in some of my most beloved Upstate New York cities, he wound up at IBM, where he eventually became chairman and CEO; his name was Thomas J. Watson, and the Thomas J. Watson Research Center is the headquarters for IBM Research. I was an IBM brat, and spent many hours there. Of course, IBM is one of the leading proponents of blockchain technology today.

So when you think of the modern blockchain, let's remember those who contributed to the underlying concepts. Today, let's hold up our favorite adult beverage and salute James Ritty, who invented a mechanical, incorruptible, trustless tool to track amounts on a permanent medium.

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Blockchain Auditor
Blockchain Auditor

The Blockchain Auditor blog is focused on accounting and audit issues related to blockchain and crypto-assets. There will be content of interest to those with an interest in topics such as accounting for cryptoassets, audit procedures related to blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, blockchain for improving audit processes, taxation of cryptoassets, and trust.

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