An Archeological Trip Across Early Ethereum Contracts
Code on distributed systems may live long into the future, etchings on a ledger, similarly revealing our human tendencies
Intrigue of the Ancients
The earliest contracts in human history may be from thousands of years ago, in ancient Mesopotamia. Here’s an example of a real-estate transaction containing many familiar ideas:
Sini-Ishtar, the son of Ilu-eribu, and Apil-Ili, his brother, have bought one third Shar of land with a house constructed, next the house of Sini-Ishtar, and next the house of Minani; one third Shar of arable land next the house of Sini-Ishtar, which fronts on the street; the property of Minani, the son of Migrat-Sin, from Minani, the son of Migrat-Sin. They have paid four and a half shekels of silver, the price agreed. Never shall further claim be made, on account of the house of Minani…
An interesting feature of such written artifacts is their recapitulation of the mundane. Ancient Egyptian recordings, legible after epic endeavors to decode them, express a unique and alluring culture but in ways that are familiar: contracts, teaching, poetry, private letters, graffiti, and so on.
It’s intriguing to draw comparisons to modern blockchain systems. Code on distributed systems may live long into the future, etchings on a ledger, similarly revealing our human tendencies.
But blockchain is not yet two decades old. Nevertheless, many blockchain enthusiasts derive the same “intrigue of the ancients” from decoding and examining samples of code from just a few years ago¹. On Ethereum, there’s now a sizable “historical NFT” community that pores over old projects, often with an eye to rejuvenating, appreciating and speculating on them.
One way to peruse this little history is to explore early verified contracts on Etherscan. Verifying a contract lets us read its pre-compiled code. Tracing a history of verified contracts shows this new medium quickly encoding familiar concepts of human experience, ones that probably occupied the minds of Sumerians and Egyptians, from greetings and messages to real-estate systems and games of fortune.
But a new medium can be a new message. Novelty offers fresh opportunities for a culture that is distinct. In blockchain, this distinct culture might be the way that contracts build composable functionality that is only possible in a public computational system.
Here’s a chain of early contract deployments illustrating this.
August 7, 2015: “Hello Ethereum!”
The earliest verified contract on Etherscan was deployed by wallet 0x3d076. It’s a simple contract that creates a read function called
go() that prints “Hello Ethereum!”
Coincidentally, this wallet 0x3d076 is a known contributor to early Ethereum named “Linagee,” now famous for the global registrar contract that implements a lookup table for human readable strings. The idea, like the now widely used Ethereum Name Service, is that you can register and use a much simpler alphanumeric sequence like “takenstheorem.” The contract can use this string to point to a harder-to-remember address. Historical NFT enthusiasts recently implemented a wrapper function around this old contract and the registrar is now widely traded on OpenSea. (Note that this global registrar contract may have originally been written by Gavin Wood, as part of the early Ethereum codebase.)
August 7, 2015: Terra Nullius
“Terra Nullius” was touted on Reddit to be an opportunity for users to claim their spot in Ethereum history. The contract allows transactions to “claim” a message on chain. These messages are not transferrable, so they resemble a “soul-bound token” to the claimant.
You can still peruse the messages that were created from those who interacted with the contract. Linagee also created their own little message on Terra Nullius. Some in the NFT community created a V2 version of Terra Nullius in Sep. 2021 and this distinctly non-historical redeployment somehow garnered over 600 ETH in volume on OpenSea.
August 7, 2015: Gambling, Ponzis & More
Early verified contracts are filled with gambling, ponzis and related projects. The contract “MySchema” might be the first verified contract of this sort. It implements 1 ETH Ponzi scheme, as discussed here on Reddit back in 2016:
Provably fair, uncensorable and permanent. The first financial contracts of their kind. Quite an achievement…for a Ponzi scheme. And they are still out there accumulating and distributing…
Interestingly, this old contract now holds over 9 ETH. This early engagement surely indicative of ETH at $3.
There are tons of these: SimpleLotto, LittleCactus, Goodfellas, ZeroPonzi, The10ETHPyramid, NoFeePonzi, CrazyEarning. It marks the association our industry has with speculation and financial play that is both tempting and unfortunate (games of fortune are likely older than recorded history).
October 6, 2015: A Public Good!
Wallet 0xd3cda created a contract called “DateTime” that implements a set of useful timestamp functions, shown below. The contract will help you convert from a Unix timestamp like 1669601568 (the timestamp of my writing here) to a human-readable date. It can also generate a timestamp from a readable date. The deployer spent 0.03 ETH in gas to create this public resource that all can use. At the time of deployment, this was about $0.02 USD.
October 9, 2015: “Grove”
Grove by Piper Merriam was a public good that offered publicly stored and accessible structured data. An interesting data experiment in the days when gas was priced according to $1 ether, but the contract was not widely used.
October 19, 2015: A Virtual World
The culmination of this vector of complexity at that time was Etheria. Etheria is probably the first true NFT on Ethereum², and was deployed in October 2015, well before the hallowed ERC-721 standard. A wrapper contract allows it to be traded on OpenSea here. Etheria’s original vision was “a virtual world in which players can own tiles, farm them for blocks, and build things. The entire state of the world is held in and all player actions are made through the decentralized, trustless Ethereum blockchain.”
I began this little post describing how contract history recapitulates common human experience, connecting us to the “ancients.” There are many more examples of this in verified contracts relatively early in Ethereum. For example, a couple decided to use an on-chain voting contract to choose their child’s name. A software developer created a codebase for representing prenuptial arrangements on chain. Even proposals in the famed DAO contain echoes of human curiosity, from basic governance decisions to what appears to be playful on-chain graffiti.
These practices are still sometimes the subject of jokes. “Put it on the blockchain” is both a common refrain of new enthusiasts and an ironic lament of OGs. But it’s not at all surprising on the backdrop of human history. We want to encode these things. Hieroglyphs are a striking example of human willingness to invest considerable time and effort learning to encode a wide variety of human messages, even platitudes.
On Ethereum, as the years have passed, composability practices have yielded massively complex financial systems. This is true in DeFi as well as NFTs. For example, I once observed how the Avastars NFT might be telling of their time:
Avastars are “heavy” NFTs, their contract loaded up with elaborate artwork on a network that was once more permissive in fees and ether price. It has that austere weightiness of artifacts from the past, lasting forever into the future, to inspire awe in those who float down the chain and inspect the contract’s details.
That thought is fun, cheesy — and human.
- Nick Szabo first proposed the idea of a “smart contract” almost three decades ago, and Bitcoin itself can now implement many kinds of smart contract. Bitcoin has a limited smart-contract language, Script. Maybe the most famous Bitcoin contracts are the ones supporting the Lightning Network. Bitcoin surely offers its own intriguing history.
- What is the “first NFT” is obviously a fraught question of debatable value. If forced to vote though, I might go for Etheria, because its contract is really quite elaborate, implementing many of the ingredients we think of as NFTs and NFT trading tools.