Bitcoin is not a physical object. Instead, it’s a bunch of code sitting on servers. However, because that concept is hard to grasp some people created tangible coins that contained a strip with the sealed private keys to a real digital bitcoin inside of them. In this post, we will take a look at what physical bitcoins look like and the types available.
Let’s take a closer look.
Does actual Bitcoin have a physical form somewhere?
The Bitcoin Network is a digital ledger created by a cryptic individual or group of people called Satoshi Nakamoto.
The ledger contains information on who owns what. On the Bitcoin blockchain, you can track how a Bitcoin moves from one person to another. Except, instead of a person’s name you see a string of 26-35 numbers and characters called an address.
Here is an example of a Bitcoin address:
Now pay attention
Every Bitcoin has a set of public/private keys.
The public key is the address.
Anyone can send Bitcoin to a public address.
But if you hold the private keys to that address you can move the Bitcoin.
So when people say they have a Bitcoin they don’t actually have any.
All they have is the private keys to send their digital money to other Bitcoin addresses.
Even when you store Bitcoins on a hardware device it’s not actual Bitcoins you are storing.
It’s the private keys to your Bitcoin.
That’s why people consider cold storage more secure. A cold wallet is not connected to the internet and therefore can’t be hacked.
Okay, so what does the ledger look like? Can I at least see that?
Yes, you can scan the ledger on Bitcoin blockchain explorers like Blockstream or blockchain.com.
For example, here are the latest transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain as they appear on Blockstream.
Because Bitcoin is hard to grasp some people started building physical representations of Bitcoin
Who made the first physical Bitcoin?
The first person to make a physical token was a Bitcoin enthusiast called Mike Caldwell.
In 2011, Bitcoin enthusiast Mike Caldwell created a physical representation of Bitcoin in the form of metal coins.
Known as Casascius coins, after Cadlwell’s username, the brass coins had a tamper-evident hologram on one side that concealed an embedded piece of paper with the private keys to some Bitcoin.
Once you open the seal you can use the private keys to transfer the Bitcoin to your digital wallet for safekeeping.
Caldwell minted 27,000 coins and bars in denominations of 1, 10, 25, 100, and 1,000 bitcoin. Over time he created silver and gold versions too. He also made bars.
This was still in the early days when Bitcoin traded at under $2.
In 2014 a company called Titan Bitcoin created a physical representation of bitcoin similar to Casascius coins.
These coins were more premium ones in that they contained one Troy ounce of 24-karat gold in addition to Bitcoin.
Titan coins were issued in denominations of 0.5 and 1 BTC coin and they too had a magnetic strip at the back.
Titan coins would also send you a personal code where you could check the value of your coin’s bitcoin on their site.
Why create physical Bitcoin?
When Bitcoin first emerged people couldn’t get their heads around the concept. Adapting to the idea of virtual currency was hard for most people.
The creators of physical Bitcoin saw a market opportunity.
If you were able to transact in bitcoin coins just like you are with physical cash then it wouldn’t matter if you understood the digital part or not. All you would need is to make sure the seal has not been tampered with.
When I tried to explain cryptocurrency in a world where cryptocurrency didn’t really exist I would just get a lot of blank stares….I thought, you know what, I am going to make this so you can put it in your pocket.Michael Caldwell in his interview with Charlie Shrem about Casascius Coins
Caldwell originally thought of going to Home Depot to get some washers to see if he could use those.
Eventually, he decided to contact a company that produced archaic tokens and attached a hologram to them.
The first physical bitcoins actually have a spelling error because Caldwell didn’t notice the error until after he had committed to the order.
He printed the private keys with a regular inkjet printer.
People were now able to keep their physical Bitcoin coins in a safe deposit box or use them in real-life transactions.
There was no longer a need for you to imagine Bitcoin in a fantasy world.
Instead of your Bitcoin transactions happening on a digital ledger, they would happen hand in hand.
Why did they stop minting physical bitcoins?
In 2013 the US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCen) sent a warning to Caldwell that as he did not hold a money transmitter license he was not allowed to mint his own coins.
He would need to have a license at the federal level if he wished to continue creating his coins.
Caldwell shut his operations down and later so did Titan bitcoin.
In his interview with Charlie Shrem, Caldwell says that this wasn’t the primary reason though.
He says that at some point he found himself spending all his time making the actual physical bitcoin. He would stuff the code in and smash up his printers and devices after.
He started to wonder if this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Then, when Bitcoin’s price started to rise he decided that he didn’t want to be holding on to items with so much value as he could become a target.
Moreover, the nature of the work was not very intellectually stimulating.
At the end of the day his mission had been accomplished in that more people had caught on to the idea of Bitcoin and its potential.
Can you still buy physical Bitcoins?
You can still find Titan and Casascius coins on sites such as eBay. At the time of writing redeemed coins are selling for about $600. So while the private keys have been removed the actual item holds value because it is part of Bitcoin’s history. In addition to that such coins have a scarcity of their own so they have collectors’ value.
You can even find unredeemed coins.
These are going for many multiple’s the actual value of the Bitcoin inside them.
For example, the price of bitcoin at the time of writing is $26,232 but an unredeemed Casascius coin from 2011 with 1 BTC in it is selling for $119,000!!!
Other than the original physical bitcoin that contained private keys you can find loads of cheap copies without the tamper-proof hologram sticker or private key in them.
These contain engravings of the Bitcoin logo but cannot be exchanged for Bitcoin. They are just plastic or metal mementos that people gift each other for fun.
All you need to do is a Google search for “buy physical bitcoin” and you’ll see loads of ads show up.
Types of Physical Bitcoins
First, you have Mike Caldwell copycats. These companies produced physical Bitcoin with private keys embedded in them.
Top physical Bitcoin coin providers
- Lealana Bitcoins produced by Noah Luis who goes by the internet handle Smoothie.
Next you have hardware wallets that look like coins. These allow you to store your Bitcoin.
Hardware Coin Wallets
Finally, you have collectors’ coins
- Artisans and resellers on Etsy
- and innoGadgets
to name a few.
Is physical Bitcoin called Bitcoin Cash?
No, Bitcoin Cash is a fork of the Bitcoin blockchain that was created to be faster with lower transaction fees than Bitcoin. It too is a virtual currency with no physical representation. You can find out more about the difference between Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash here
How many Casascius are there?
According to Uberbills.com, there are still 42,850 BTC that have not been taken off of the hologram.
On secondary markets such as Bitcointalk, eBAY, and OpenBazaar these coins are trading at a high premium compared to their BTC value because they form a part of Bitcoin’s early history.
In total Uberbills estimates that there are more than $1Bn’s worth of unopened coins and bars.
Is a physical Bitcoin worth anything?
Yes, early versions of physical Bitcoin are worth anywhere between $600 to over $100,000 depending on if they have been tampered with or not.
How much does a physical Bitcoin weigh?
It depends on the metal used. The original gold plaited physical Bitcoins weighed 4.2 ounces (120 grams) but on average such coins weigh about 1 ounce (28.35 grams).
How do I redeem a physical Bitcoin?
There are two ways to redeem a physical Bitcoin 1. You sell it as is on the secondary market. 2. You break the seal and use the private key to send the Bitcoin to a Bitcoin wallet or an exchange from where you can sell it. The first option will likely you fetch you more money because physically sealed bitcoins sell at a premium.
Can you actually hold a Bitcoin in your hand?
No, Bitcoin is not a physical product. It is a completely digital asset. However, people have created physical representations of the digital currency with the private keys to BTC stuffed inside of them.
Can Bitcoin be converted to cash?
Yes, you can convert Bitcoin to cash by selling it on a crypto exchange for fiat currency such as US Dollars, Euros, Yuan etc. Once you make the sale you can send the cash to your bank account.
What happens if you lose physical Bitcoin?
If you lose your physical Bitcoin with the private key inside it then there is no one that can help you. The private key is unique and only you have access to it.
What is the most expensive physical Bitcoin?
The Gold Cas is a gold physical coin with 1,000 BTC loaded onto it from 2011. This item will be worth more than the value of 1,000 BTC because it is a part of Bitcoin history.
- Casascius Coin Creator Mike Caldwell on making Bitcoin meaningful for the masses
- Casascius physical bitcoins
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