Remembering Hal Finney: Bitcoin Pioneer With ALS

Image courtesy of Forbes

Image courtesy of Forbes

A little before 9:00 am on the morning of August 28th, 2014, Hal Finney was declared clinically dead in the Intensive Care Unit of a Scottsdale, Arizona hospital. After a 5-year battle with ALS, Hal Finney is now in cryopreservation awaiting the advent of new technologies that might cure him. Earlier this week, Hal Finney and his wife Fran Finney arrived in Scottsdale, which is home to an Alcor cryopreservation facility, in preparation for the next adventuring step in Hal Finney’s already accomplished life. The news of Hal’s cryopreservation was shared by Alcor CEO, Max More, to the Extropy Institute chat list, where Hal was a prominent member for many years.

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Alcor described the cryopreservation process:

Immediately after pronouncement of legal death, Alcor’s standby team went into action, restoring circulation, ventilation, administering an array of medications, and initiating external cooling. Surgery is currently underway to enable us to replace Hal’s blood and interstitial fluids with cryoprotectant. Once perfusion is finished we will be able to plunge Hal’s temperature down past the freezing point without any significant ice formation. Once he is down to around -110 degC we will slow cooling and take a couple more days to reach the final storage temperature of -196 degC. After that, Hal will be placed in long-term storage and cared for until the day when repair and revival may be possible.

Remembering Hal Finney

Even before his involvement in Bitcoin, Hal Finney was looked up to in the cryptology community and considered a heavyweight “cryptographic activist.” With an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology, Hal was the second developer brought on by the PGP Corporation, after Phil Zimmerman. In his early days, Hal Finney also contributed to the gaming industry as the lead developer on such titles as Adventures of Tron and Armor Ambush. While running the world’s first cryptographically secured anonymous remailer in the 1990s, Hal Finney became a regular poster on the cypherpunk’s listserv as well as other chat lists such as the cryptography mailing list. It is through these connections that Hal Finney would eventually “meet” Satoshi Nakamoto and become the first recipient of a Bitcoin transaction.

In the frenzy surrounding Newsweek’s journalism faux pas, there was a rekindled interest in the origins of the Bitcoin network that is such a positive force in the world now. It was in this context that Forbes’ Andy Greenberg was able to interview Hal Finney in March of 2014. The article presented compelling evidence that Hal Finney was not the same person as Satoshi Nakamoto, a somewhat popular theory from the past. Hal Finney’s son, Jason Finney, showed the world email correspondences and the first Bitcoin test transactions between Satoshi Nakamoto and Hal Finney in early 2009. Not even a year after Hal Finney and Satoshi Nakamoto stopped corresponding, in August of 2009, Hal was diagnosed with ALS.

By March of 2013, Hal Finney was well into ALS’ progression. He started a thread on Bitcointalk.org, where the nascent Bitcoin community spent untold hours in the early years, describing his then situation:

Today, I am essentially paralyzed. I am fed through a tube, and my breathing is assisted through another tube. I operate the computer using a commercial eyetracker system. It also has a speech synthesizer, so this is my voice now. I spend all day in my power wheelchair. I worked up an interface using an arduino so that I can adjust my wheelchair’s position using my eyes.

Hal Finney ended that post, which was one of his last, with these salient words:

Even with the ALS, my life is very satisfying. But my life expectancy is limited. Those discussions about inheriting your bitcoins are of more than academic interest. My bitcoins are stored in our safe deposit box, and my son and daughter are tech savvy. I think they’re safe enough. I’m comfortable with my legacy.