Ethereum was conceived in 2013 by programmer Vitalik Buterin. In 2014, development work commenced and was crowdfunded, and the network went live on 30 July 2015. The platform allows anyone to deploy permanent and immutable decentralized applications onto it, with which users can interact. Decentralized finance (DeFi) applications provide a broad array of financial services without the need for typical financial intermediaries like brokerages, exchanges, or banks, such as allowing cryptocurrency users to borrow against their holdings or lend them out for interest. Ethereum also allows for the creation and exchange of NFTs, which are non-interchangeable tokens connected to digital works of art or other real-world items and sold as unique digital property. Additionally, many other cryptocurrencies operate as ERC-20 tokens on top of the Ethereum blockchain and have utilized the platform for initial coin offerings.
Ethereum was initially described in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin, a programmer and co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine, in late 2013 with a goal of building decentralized applications. Buterin argued to the bitcoin core developers that Bitcoin and blockchain technology could benefit from other applications besides money and needed a more robust language for application development that could lead to attaching real-world assets, such as stocks and property, to the blockchain. In 2013, Buterin briefly worked with eToro CEO Yoni Assia on the Colored Coins project and drafted its white paper outlining additional use cases for blockchain technology. However, after failing to gain agreement on how the project should proceed, he proposed the development of a new platform with a more robust scripting language—a Turing-complete programming language —that would eventually become Ethereum.
Ethereum has an unusually long list of founders. Anthony Di Iorio wrote: "Ethereum was founded by Vitalik Buterin, Myself, Charles Hoskinson, Mihai Alisie & Amir Chetrit (the initial 5) in December 2013. Joseph Lubin, Gavin Wood, & Jeffrey Wilcke were added in early 2014 as founders." Formal development of the software began in early 2014 through a Swiss company, Ethereum Switzerland GmbH (EthSuisse). The basic idea of putting executable smart contracts in the blockchain needed to be specified before the software could be implemented. This work was done by Gavin Wood, then the chief technology officer, in the Ethereum Yellow Paper that specified the Ethereum Virtual Machine. Subsequently, a Swiss non-profit foundation, the Ethereum Foundation (Stiftung Ethereum), was created as well. Development was funded by an online public crowdsale from July to August 2014, with the participants buying the Ethereum value token (Ether) with another digital currency, Bitcoin. While there was early praise for the technical innovations of Ethereum, questions were also raised about its security and scalability.
Several codenamed prototypes of Ethereum were developed over 18 months in 2014 and 2015 by the Ethereum Foundation as part of their proof-of-concept series. "Olympic" was the last prototype and public beta pre-release. The Olympic network provided users with a bug bounty of 25,000 Ether for stress testing the limits of the Ethereum blockchain. In July 2015, "Frontier" marked the official launch of the Ethereum platform as Ethereum created its "genesis block."
Ethereum was announced at the North American Bitcoin Conference in Miami, in January 2014. During the conference, Gavin Wood, Charles Hoskinson, and Anthony Di Iorio (who financed the project) rented a house in Miami with Buterin to develop a fuller sense of what Ethereum might become. Di Iorio invited friend Joseph Lubin, who invited reporter Morgen Peck, to bear witness. Peck subsequently wrote about the experience in Wired. Six months later the founders met again in a house in Zug, Switzerland, where Buterin told the founders that the project would proceed as a non-profit. Hoskinson left the project at that time.
Ethereum also allows for the creation of unique and indivisible tokens, called non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Since tokens of this type are unique, they have been used to represent such things as collectibles, digital art, sports memorabilia, virtual real estate, and items within games. The first NFT project, Etheria, a 3D map of tradable and customizable hexagonal tiles, was deployed to the network in October 2015 and demonstrated live at DEVCON1 in November of that year. In 2021, Christie's sold a digital image with an NFT by Beeple for $69.3 million, making him the third-most valuable living artist in terms of auction prices at the time. Land, buildings and avatars in blockchain-based virtual worlds can also be bought and sold as NFTs, sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In October 2015, a development governance was proposed as the Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP), standardized on EIP-1. The core development group and community were to gain consensus by a process regulated EIP.
The ERC-20 (Ethereum Request for Comments 20) Token Standard allows for fungible tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. The standard, proposed by Fabian Vogelsteller in November 2015, implements an API for tokens within smart contracts. The standard provides functions including the transfer of tokens from one account to another, getting the current token balance of an account and getting the total supply of the token available on the network. Smart contracts that correctly implement ERC-20 processes are called ERC-20 Token Contracts, and help keep track of the created tokens on Ethereum. Numerous cryptocurrencies have launched as ERC-20 tokens and have been distributed through initial coin offerings. Fees to send ERC-20 tokens must be paid with Ether.
In 2016, a decentralized autonomous organization called The DAO, a set of smart contracts developed on the platform, raised a record US$150 million in a crowdsale to fund the project. The DAO was exploited in June 2016 when US$50 million of DAO tokens were stolen by an unknown hacker. The event sparked a debate in the crypto-community about whether Ethereum should perform a contentious "hard fork" to reappropriate the affected funds. It resulted in the network splitting into two blockchains: Ethereum with the theft reversed and Ethereum Classic which continued on the original chain. The hard fork created a rivalry between the two networks. After the hard fork, Ethereum subsequently forked twice in the fourth quarter of 2016 to deal with other attacks.
In Ethereum, all smart contracts are stored publicly on every node of the blockchain, which has costs. Being a blockchain means it is secure by design and is an example of a distributed computing system with high Byzantine fault tolerance. The downside is that performance issues arise in that every node is calculating all the smart contracts in real-time, resulting in lower speeds. As of January 2016, the Ethereum protocol could process about 25 transactions per second. In comparison, the Visa payment platform processes 45,000 payments per second leading some to question the scalability of Ethereum. On 19 December 2016, Ethereum exceeded one million transactions in a single day for the first time. Visa has also signaled interest in processing NFT and Ethereum transactions.
Ethereum's blockchain uses Merkle trees, for security reasons, to improve scalability, and to optimize transaction hashing. As with any Merkle tree implementation, it allows for storage savings, set membership proofs (called "Merkle proofs"), and light client synchronization. The network has faced congestion problems, such as in 2017 in relation to Cryptokitties.
In March 2017, various blockchain startups, research groups, and Fortune 500 companies announced the creation of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) with 30 founding members. By May 2017, the nonprofit organization had 116 enterprise members – including ConsenSys, CME Group, Cornell University's research group, Toyota Research Institute, Samsung SDS, Microsoft, Intel, J. P. Morgan, Cooley LLP, Merck KGaA, DTCC, Deloitte, Accenture, Banco Santander, BNY Mellon, ING, and National Bank of Canada. By July 2017, there were over 150 members in the alliance, including MasterCard, Cisco Systems, Sberbank, and Scotiabank.
Ethereum engineers have been working on sharding the calculations, and the next step (Ethereum 2) was presented at Ethereum's Devcon 3 in November 2017.
In January 2018, Ethereum was the second largest cryptocurrency in terms of market capitalization, behind Bitcoin. As of 2021 , it maintained that relative position.
In 2019, Ethereum Foundation employee Virgil Griffith was arrested by the US government for presenting at a blockchain conference in North Korea.
After the Constantinople upgrade on 28 February 2019, there were two network upgrades made within a month late in the year: Istanbul on 8 December 2019 and Muir Glacier on 2 January 2020.
Examples of DeFi platforms include MakerDAO and Compound. Uniswap, a decentralized exchange for tokens on Ethereum grew from $20 million in liquidity to $2.9 billion in 2020. As of October 2020, over $11 billion was invested in various DeFi protocols. Additionally, through a process called "wrapping", certain DeFi protocols allow synthetic versions of various assets (such as Bitcoin, gold and oil) to become available and tradeable on Ethereum and also compatible with all of Ethereum's major wallets and applications.
There have been two network upgrades in 2021. The first was the "Berlin" upgrade, implemented on 14 April 2021. The second was "London", which took effect on 5 August. The London upgrade included Ethereum Improvement Proposal ("EIP") 1559, which introduced a mechanism for reducing transaction fee volatility. The mechanism causes a portion of the Ether paid in transaction fees each block to be destroyed rather than given to the miner, reducing the inflation rate of Ether and potentially resulting in periods of deflation.
In March 2021, Visa Inc. announced that it began settling stablecoin transactions using Ethereum. In April 2021, JP Morgan Chase, UBS, and MasterCard announced that they were investing $65 million into ConsenSys, a software development firm that builds Ethereum-related infrastructure.
On 27 August 2021, the blockchain experienced a brief fork that was the result of clients running different incompatible software versions.