How does Bitcoin work?
This is a question that often causes confusion. Here's a quick explanation!
The basics for a new user
As a new user, you can get started with Bitcoin without understanding the technical details. Once you have installed a Bitcoin wallet on your computer or mobile phone, it will generate your first Bitcoin address and you can create more whenever you need one. You can disclose your addresses to your friends so that they can pay you or vice versa. In fact, this is pretty similar to how email works, except that Bitcoin addresses should only be used once.
Balances – block chain
The block chain is a shared public ledger on which the entire Bitcoin network relies. All confirmed transactions are included in the block chain. This way, Bitcoin wallets can calculate their spendable balance and new transactions can be verified to be spending bitcoins that are actually owned by the spender. The integrity and the chronological order of the block chain are enforced with cryptography.
The blockchain provides Bitcoin’s public ledger, an ordered and timestamped record of transactions. This system is used to protect against double spending and modification of previous transaction records.
Each full node in the Bitcoin network independently stores a block chain containing only blocks validated by that node. When several nodes all have the same blocks in their blockchain, they are considered to be in consensus. The validation rules these nodes follow to maintain consensus are called consensus rules. This section describes many of the consensus rules used by Bitcoin Core.
Block Chain Overview
A block of one or more new transactions is collected into the transaction data part of a block. Copies of each transaction are hashed, and the hashes are then paired, hashed, paired again, and hashed again until a single hash remains, the Merkle root of a Merkle tree. The Merkle root is stored in the block header. Each block also stores the hash of the previous block’s header, chaining the blocks together. This ensures a transaction cannot be modified without modifying the block that records it and all following blocks.
Transactions are also chained together. Bitcoin wallet software gives the impression that satoshis are sent from and to wallets, but bitcoins really move from transaction to transaction. Each transaction spends the satoshis previously received in one or more earlier transactions, so the input of one transaction is the output of a previous transaction.
A single transaction can create multiple outputs, as would be the case when sending to multiple addresses, but each output of a particular transaction can only be used as an input once in the block chain. Any subsequent reference is a forbidden double spend—an attempt to spend the same satoshis twice. Outputs are tied to transaction identifiers (TXIDs), which are the hashes of signed transactions.
Because each output of a particular transaction can only be spent once, the outputs of all transactions included in the block chain can be categorized as either Unspent Transaction Outputs (UTXOs) or spent transaction outputs. For a payment to be valid, it must only use UTXOs as inputs.
Ignoring coin based transactions (described later), if the value of a transaction’s outputs exceeds its inputs, the transaction will be rejected—but if the inputs exceed the value of the outputs, any difference in value may be claimed as a transaction fee by the Bitcoin miner who creates the block containing that transaction. For example, in the illustration above, each transaction spends 10,000 satoshis fewer than it receives from its combined inputs, effectively paying a 10,000 satoshi transaction fee.
Transactions – private keys
A transaction is a transfer of value between Bitcoin wallets that gets included in the block chain. Bitcoin wallets keep a secret piece of data called a private key or seed, which is used to sign transactions, providing a mathematical proof that they have come from the owner of the wallet. The signature also prevents the transaction from being altered by anybody once it has been issued. All transactions are broadcast between users and usually begin to be confirmed by the network in the following 10 minutes, through a process called mining.
Processing – mining
Mining is a distributed consensus system that is used to confirm a waiting transactions by including them in the block chain. It enforces a chronological order in the block chain, protects the neutrality of the network, and allows different computers to agree on the state of the system. To be confirmed, transactions must be packed in a block that fits very strict cryptographic rules that will be verified by the network. These rules prevent previous blocks from being modified because doing so would invalidate all following blocks. Mining also creates the equivalent of a competitive lottery that prevents any individual from easily adding new blocks consecutively in the block chain. This way, no individuals can control what is included in the block chain or replace parts of the blockchain to roll back their own spends.
Going down the rabbit hole
This is only a very short and concise summary of the system.