Many years before the genesis of Bitcoin, there was an undercurrent of growing dissatisfaction with the current economic and political structure, especially relating to privacy and sovereignty. In the early '90's a group of people known as "Cypherpunks" started using their knowledge of computer programming and mathematics to create a radical concept that had the ability to disrupt the status quo.
"A cypherpunk is any activist advocating widespread use of strong cryptography and privacy-enhancing technologies as a route to social and political change."
For most people back in the 90's it would have been hard to grasp the true meaning of this movement as we had yet to encounter companies like Google and Facebook, did not have an understanding of "Big Data" and had no idea of how social networks would assimilate our family, friends and acquaintances into one big amorphous web of communication. Jump forward 25 years and it would be hard to find someone that is NOT aware of these concepts that now permeate almost every facet of our lives.
John Gilmore - cypherpunk, activist, libertarian
Starting properly in 1992 with the creation of a Cypherpunk mailing list, Tim May, Eric Hughes and John Gilmore are widely touted as the original Cypherpunks. Interestingly a quick internet search reveals very little about both Tim or Eric, with many search results focusing purely on their crypto publications. John Gilmore 's personal history extends a bit further due to his role as the 5th employee of Sun Microsystems, his advocacy of civil libertarian views and his involvement in the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He also co-authored the Bootstrap Protocol in 1985, the idea behind which eventually evolved into DHCP. In addition to these three gentlemen, some of the more notable people and rising luminaries on the original Cypherpunk mailing list are Jim Bell (controversial American crypto-anarchist), David Chaum (cryptographic protocol inventor and the Father of Online Anonymity), Phil Zimmerman (creator of PGP, the worlds first email encryption software implementing public key cryptography), Adam Back (British cryptographer and inventor of Hashcash), Wei Dai (computer engineer and creator of b-money which outlined the Proof of Work concept), Hal Finney (Developer, 2nd employee of PGP Corporation and recipient of the first bitcoin transaction), and of course Julian Assange - famous hacker, activist and founder of Wikileaks.
Predating this, in 1988 Tim May wrote the seminal document The Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto in which he outlined how the ultimate goal of the Cypherpunk movement was about to be realised - complete privacy and anonimity around communication, conducting business and negotiating contracts "with near perfect assurance against any tampering". In this document Tim May also states that "These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.” He followed this up in May of 1994 with "Cryptonomicon"; an extensive and detailed document outlining some of the key ideas behind crypto-anarchism including the importance of libertarianism within the movement and the true meaning of anarchy, which is a word that typically has negative connotations perpetuated by the government and mainstream media.
Tim May - Electronic engineer and senior scientist at Intel, original cypherpunk
In 1993, another member of the Cypherpunk mailing list, Eric Hughes, wrote a statement outlining the mission and goal of the Cypherpunks called "A Cypherpunk's Manifesto" in which he says “Cypherpunks are dedicated to building anonymous systems… Privacy is necessary for an open society in the electronic age… We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy… We must defend our own privacy if we expect to have any. We are defending our privacy with cryptography, with anonymous mail forwarding systems, with digital signatures, and with electronic money”.
David Chaum - the Father of Online Anonymity
An early attempt at realising one of the Cypherpunk's original goals to create electronic money was undertaken by David Chaum through "Digicash". Chaum's company attempted to create anonymous transactions through the use of cryptographic protocols after some major advancements to public and private key technology. This effectively created a system of Blind Signatures which enhanced user security preventing third parties from accessing private information through online transactions. Unfortunately "Digicash" was probably before it's time and failed after only a few years. There were a few key core components missing such as a solution to the "Byzantine General's Problem" and the problem of "Double Spend".
Later on, in 2008, someone named Satoshi Nakamoto solved the double spend problem and released a whitepaper on The Cryptography Mailing list describing Bitcoin. It was called "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System"