Does History Have Examples of Technologies Similar to Blockchain?

By Rushali Shome

When we talk about blockchain, we see it as a novel form of technology that is a wonder of modern science. But is it really so modern and unique or do we find in history technologies similar to blockchain? Turns out we do.

What, essentially,is the blockchain technology?

Blockchain is nothing but a distributed ledger mechanism that stores information in blocks using cryptography or high-order mathematical models. These blocks are tied up in chains, with each block being recognized solely by its hash value, a unique fingerprint. Now each block’s identity incorporates in it the identity of the previous block as well. This makes sure that all the blocks are inexorably tied up in a chain from which you cannot untangle one block without disrupting the hash values of the other blocks.

Now one way in which blockchain stores records is by tokenizing it. It does not just record transactions but also holds the valuable assets- virtual currencies or any other form of asset, within the blockchain network itself. The beginning of blockchain in fact happened with a currency, a virtual asset: namely, Bitcoin.

What link does this have with history?

Now, according to historian M.T. Clanchy, we find record-keeping and official uses similar to blockchain technology in medieval history. As Professor Lemieux of the University of British Columbia attests, Sir Hilary Jenkinson’s 1937 Manual of Archive Administration indicates the presence of things like human hair, a penny piece, portraits etc in medieval archives, which indicates that they were symbolic records of business deals or transactions.

Even during the Norman Conquest, we find evidence of kings bestowing grants not by simple verbal direction or written orders but via the use of symbols such as knives, swords, horns and helmets. One of them, Stephen de Bulmer’s broken knife can still be seen in the Durham Cathedral Archives. The broken knife with its parchment label, details that it is basically a symbol of a land given as gift. Cryptocurrencies are also symbolic representations that are tokenized to be bought and sold like assets.

Therefore, we see, even an apparently unique modern technology also has roots dating back to the 12th century, the medieval period. Even technologies such as databases or ledgers have been introduced in later times and were far less sophisticated versions of what blockchain today is, a high-functioning distributed digital ledger system. Humankind has made gradual progress and just like a blockchain network, the phases of human progress are inexorably linked from medieval tokens to modern bitcoins, so that we can never disassociate the historical roots from the splendour of our modernity.

Rushali Shome

Rushali Shome is a history undergraduate with a keen interest in puns, politics and beyond. When not typing away furiously in the “Notes” section of her phone, she can be found trying to catch the eye of servers at restaurants or weddings for a second helping.

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