There were once 184 billion bitcoins

One of the reasons why it is important that bitcoin cannot be changed just like that is to prevent errors or bugs from being accidentally implemented. All changes to the source code are therefore checked very thoroughly by a large group of developers. However, things have gone wrong in the past.

An overflow of bitcoins

Namely, on August 15, 2010, it was discovered that block number 74638 contained a transaction that created 184,467,440,737.09551616 bitcoins. The transaction was due to a flaw in the code responsible for checking the validity of transactions before including them in a block. The code did not account for the possibility that the sum of two outputs is so large that it causes an overflow .

In an overflow , a number is too large or too small to be represented by the available number of bits, resulting in an incorrect number being passed. An overflow is similar to an odometer overflowing to 0000 after reaching a distance of 9999.

The bug was quickly discovered and within hours a new version of the software was rolled out that fixed the bug. The adjustment caused a fork in the blockchain, so that nodes that had not yet been updated continued to build on the wrong blockchain. From block 74691 everyone was back on the correct version of the blockchain.

The error as it occurred is very rare in bitcoin’s history and fortunately happened in the early years. The person (or people) behind the moniker Satoshi Nakamoto has indicated that he wrote the code of bitcoin over a period of about a year and a half. It is likely that the focus during this period was on getting the system working, and not on writing watertight code. These first versions of the source code only consisted of about 3,000 lines of code, where today’s source code for bitcoin contains more than 100,000 lines of code. While the source code is now more comprehensive than before, much more effort has gone into making the code robust through a lengthy process with many different eyes on the code. The chance of a recurrence of the incident is therefore very small.

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