The story of Gavin Wood: a blockchain pioneer and true creator

PolkaWorld
11 min readMar 9, 2021

For the public, maybe the name “Gavin Wood” is not as well-known as “Satoshi Nakamoto” or “Vitalik Buterin”. But in the mind of many blockchain developers, Gavin Wood is a legendary programmer and technical leader. Dr. Gavin Wood coded up the alpha release of Ethereum, wrote the Ethereum Yellow Paper, invented the Solidity language, and founded the next-generation blockchain protocol — Polkadot.

As Polkadot has become one of the top blockchain projects in the market capitalization list, more and more people want to know the person who created Polkadot. This article combs the story of Dr. Gavin Wood’s creation of Ethereum and Polkadot, hoping to help people know more about this low-key blockchain pioneer.

Dr. Gavin Wood, whose Chinese name is 林嘉文(a Chinese community member proposed this name), was born in the UK in 1980. If you have seen his speech, you will find that his image is quite far from the stereotyped image of a programmer: he has short gray hair and often wears a well-fitting T-shirt and jeans. He also has a habit of giving public speeches with a bottle of beer in his hand, no matter how many people are in the audience.

Programming and Game Theory

One of Gavin Wood’s most praised abilities is his strong engineering ability, that is, the ability to turn ideas into code through reasonable architecture design and programming. After all, he completed the initial development of Ethereum almost all by himself.

Gavin’s connection with computers can be traced back a long time ago when his mother gave him an old computer when he was 9 years old. His neighbor Sean taught him to write the first computer program, and since then his interest in programming has started. Choosing to pursue his interests, Gavin did a master’s degree in computer science at York University and then a Ph.D. at his Alma mater, focusing on music visualization for human-computer interfacing (HCI).

After graduating from his Ph.D., Gavin became a programmer and continued to explore and create. What he has done includes but is not limited to consulting Microsoft Research for the embedded domain-specific language, designing and implementing the first real-time smart lighting controller for a top London nightclub, designing and implementing the first C++ language workbench. He developed OxLegal, an editing system for smart text contracts, a plug-in Noted that can visualize audio analysis, and RipInPeace, a CD audio track grabbing software.

It is not difficult to see from these experiences that Gavin has always been interested in creating new things and solving problems. For him, code is a passion, an art form. “I feel that my value adds for the world is creating technical solutions for things and delivering them… I’m in some sense addicted to it… The world, in some sense, belongs to coders.”, he said in a video.

In addition to programming, Gavin has long been interested in economics and game theory. He has developed a strategy board game called Milton Keynes and created the Fractal Playground and Localized Proportional Representation voting system. He also proposed a new voting system for the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, but in the end, they did not want to change the voting system.

It may be these two interests that brought him to the blockchain industry, which seems to be the perfect combination of technology and game theory. In fact, when Gavin first learned about Bitcoin in 2011, he had little interest in Bitcoin. It was not until the beginning of 2013 when he reviewed Bitcoin again that he “began to realize new possibilities opening up between the fields of ITC and game theory, and the inevitable social change to which this would lead. “ His thoughts on governance later also permeated Polkadot’s design ideas — Polkadot adopted a forkless on-chain democratic governance mechanism.

Founding Ethereum

In 2013, Gavin met Vitalik Buterin through an old friend. After listening to Vitalik’s thoughts on Ethereum, Gavin felt that the idea of making the blockchain programmable is very interesting, and decided to help Vitalik code Ethereum up. In 2014, he went to Miami and founded Ethereum with Vitalik and several other founders. At this place, Gavin developed the first operational Ethereum implementation, generally referred to as the Ethereum PoC 1 or Alpha version. After that, Gavin acted as the first CTO of Ethereum and wrote the “Ethereum Yellow Paper”, in which the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) was defined, which was the first official specification of the blockchain state machine.

In the next two years, Gavin devoted himself to the development of Ethereum, which included general platform architecture, the majority of the C++ Ethereum client, and the initial design of Solidity — an object-oriented programming language for writing Ethereum smart contracts. With the escort of Gavin’s powerful engineering realization capabilities, Ethereum went live as expected.

In 2015, Gavin proposed the concept of Web3.0, which is to establish a decentralized and free web environment, break the monopoly of the Internet giants, and return data, privacy, and self-sovereign to users, and become the basis for “individual freedom to oppose violent authority.”

In 2016, Gavin left Ethereum and founded EthCore. After gradually gathering more than 60 developers from 15 countries, EthCore later became Parity Technologies, which wrote the Ethereum Parity client in Rust language, which far exceeds the performance of Geth and C++ clients.

The reason for Gavin’s departure from Ethereum is unknown. Some speculations believe that Gavin and Vitalik may have a disagreement on the development path of Ethereum. In some subsequent interviews, Gavin did mention that he did not agree with Ethereum’s governance way of just enacting a hard fork, and he thought the fact that only Ether is allowed to pay gas fees has made Ethereum deviate from becoming a free competition decentralized platform. It seems that in Gavin’s mind, Ethereum cannot realize his vision of Web3.0 anymore.

Founding Polkadot

In 2016, Gavin Wood published Polkadot’s white paper, describing Polkadot’s “heterogeneous multi-chain” architecture. After that, he led Parity to embark on the development of Polkadot.

In a recent interview, when the host asked Gavin about his vision for the creation of Polkadot, he replied that “The vision (of Polkadot) was to ‘make blockchain great again’. It’s like “Can we take blockchain a step further? Can we actually address some of these really important issues that we always known have existed? ”.

This statement may sound a bit not humble, but if you have learned about Polkadot, you will find that this is not rhetoric. Polkadot tries to solve several fundamental problems in the blockchain industry: scalability in performance, flexibility in architecture design, and upgradability in governance.

Polkadot adopts the “heterogeneous shared multi-chain” architecture of “one relay chain + multiple parachains”. The relay chain is responsible for the consensus part and ensures the safety of all parachains. Each parachain is a heterogeneous shard that can run in parallel, thereby improving scalability. At the same time, each chain can have its own business logic, focusing on solving problems in a specific field. Parachains have high flexibility in development, and even public blockchain with different consensuses such as Bitcoin and Ethereum can be brought in through bridges.

Polkadot has also solved the headache of “forking” in the blockchain field. In the past, the blockchain needed to be upgraded with a soft fork, and even a hard fork when opinions differed. Polkadot designed a set of governance mechanisms to allow the stakeholder to reach an agreement on the chain, jointly determine the future of the network, and then upgrade through on-chain Runtime updates. This ensures that the network keeps pace with the times, and the community will not be divided due to differences of opinion.

If the development of Ethereum proves that Gavin’s outstanding engineering ability, then these elegant and visionary designs in Polkadot have proved that Gavin has extraordinary ideas and is a great thinker. When ideas and actions are perfectly combined in one person, we generally call such people “creators”. They may promote the development of the industry, and may even open up an unprecedented industry.

Gavin is undoubtedly a creator. In the eyes of a creator, it is not enough to conceive a great thing, but also to build it brick by brick. When he discovers a problem, he will solve it by himself, instead of just waiting for it to happen. He enjoys the joy of creation. In his eyes, innovation is not to fix or improve the original things, but to create something completely different. This was proved again in the birth of Substrate.

Creating Substrate

On the stage of the 2018 Web3 Summit, Gavin opened a brand new Apple laptop and built a blockchain from scratch within half an hour, using the Substrate blockchain development framework.

Substrate was born out of Polkadot — in the process of developing Polkadot, Gavin and the team discovered a problem: developing a blockchain from scratch is too complicated and the workload is huge, which will hinder a lot of blockchain teams outside the door, it will undoubtedly set back innovation in the blockchain field. Therefore, Gavin and the team decided to abstract and refine Polkadot’s development experience into a blockchain development framework — Substrate.

Substrate modularizes the commonly used components of the blockchain, such as consensus, accounts, tokens, governance, and on-chain treasury. Developers only need to choose the modules they need and assemble and modify them as they want, and they can quickly build a blockchain by doing that. A chain developed using the Substrate framework can be easily connected to Polkadot and become a parachain.

Creating Kusama

In addition to Substrate, Gavin and the Polkadot team are constantly bursting out new ideas in the process of creating Polkadot.

At a meetup in Japan in July 2019, Gavin announced the Kusama network for the first time. Kusama is Polkadot’s “Canary Network”. Naming after the canary that early coal miners would bring into the mine to help detect and eliminate dangerous factors, Kusama also means the same for Polkadot. Different from the previous blockchain test networks, Kusama is a network that will keep alive and has real economic value. It has its own token KSM, the code is highly similar to Polkadot, and the community will really use it. This allows Polkadot to observe the changes brought about by various mechanisms and applications in a more realistic environment, and get prepared in advance.

Such a model is to some extent unprecedented in the blockchain world, and subsequent events have proved that this idea is indeed useful. After experiencing Kusama’s launching process, the development team and the community were fully prepared, which allowed Polkadot’s launching to be successful. The design of the canary network has also set off a wave of craze. Some Polkadot eco-projects have followed suit and launched their own Canary Network before the main network.

Parathread

While the community was still immersed in the birth of Kusama and was discussing this nascent canary network in full swing, Gavin was planning something new again. A few days later, at the event of the Polkadot China Tour in Shanghai, Gavin gave everyone another surprise, that is Polkadot’s “Parathread” design.

Surprisingly, at the Beijing meetup two days ago, the’s no hint of parathread at all. Maybe it’s the inspiration brought by the Chinese community, Gavin changed the keynote overnight before the Shanghai meetup, added the content of parathreads, and added a big Chinese character “丝 (Silk)” in the keynote background. What shocked me the most was that in the speech that day, Gavin did not simply put forward the concept, but already had a more complete and mature consideration of parathreads, including how it works, how to incentivize various roles in the network, and how to integrate it into the original system, etc. In other words, it only took one day and one night from birth to the perfection of this idea.

More importantly, parathreads are not just some icing on the cake. It also solves two important potential problems in Polkadot’s original design — the retirement problem of the parachain and the problem of high crowdloan thresholds for the parachain.

As we mentioned, the Polkadot relay chain is responsible for the network security of multiple parachains. Parachains wanting to access the Polkadot relay chain need to use DOT to bid for slots, and the lease period ranges from 6 months to 2 years. But when the lease of a parachain is up and is not renewed, where should it go? and who is responsible for the security of this parachain? It seems unrealistic to build your own validator from scratch. Furthermore, not every team can have the financial resources to bid for a parachain slot. Will these teams not be able to benefit from the Polkadot network?

Presumably, these problems were also thought of by Gavin, that’s why he proposed parathread. It is a “par-price alternative” to parachain. It does not require bidding for slots. It only occupies Polkadot network resources when needed, and you only pay for the amount you used. This way the retired parachains can be converted to parathreads as a transition. Also, some projects that do not need to run continuously can directly use parathreads to benefit from the Polkadot network.

Epilogue

In addition to technology, Gavin loves art and philosophy, he likes music, foreign languages, skiing, photography, and holds a black belt in Taekwondo. He is naturally curious and sensitive to the world. Maybe in his eyes, blockchain is just a large-scale social experiment. Let us look forward to his creation on Polkadot in the future.

He once said that if he retires from the blockchain industry, he would like to make music. Although I believe he would also live a happy time in that way, if he really retires, then it will be a great loss for the blockchain. After all, in this industry, great brains are common, excellent programmers are seen occasionally, but such outstanding creators are extremely rare.

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Disclaimer: The above is the author’s personal opinion and is not the opinion or policy of Polkadot, Parity technologies, or Web3 Foundation.

About PolkaWorld

PolkaWorld is Polkadot’s Chinese community. We have gathered more than 30,000 Polkadot fans. It is the world’s largest Polka Chinese community and the only community that has received the Web3 Foundation Grant.PolkaWorld is committed to popularizing Polkadot technical knowledge, training Substrate developers, and supporting Polkadot ecological entrepreneurs, thereby promoting the development of China’s Web3.0 ecology.

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