One mistake and bitcoin millions gone forever

Down the drain: Thomas (left) and Howells (right) have lost access to their virtual wallets.

Has the digital revolution gone too far? A forgotten password. A discarded hard drive. And two men desperate to recover huge fortunes. Is this a terrible morality tale for a virtual age?

Newport city landfill is not inviting.

Lorries arrive, dumping tonnes of waste onto a mountain of rubbish. There are few who would choose to spend time there.

For years, James Howells has been begging Newport Council to let him do just that. In 2013, the IT worker threw away a hard drive containing 7,500 bitcoin – then valued at £4.6 m.

In the eight years since, the value of the cryptocurrency has soared. Today, with his bitcoin worth £210 m, Howells has renewed his plea.

The council is clear: no.

In California, Stefan Thomas is also a bitcoin millionaire. But he cannot remember the password to his digital wallet.

If he makes two more wrong guesses, the file will seize up and he will lose £175 m forever.

Around 20% of the world’s bitcoin – worth £102 bn – is locked in lost or stranded digital wallets.

Bitcoin was invented in 2008.

For centuries, humans relied on early forms of currency such as cowrie shells. In 600BC, King Alyattes of Lydia minted the first coin.

Now, money is mainly online.

The digital revolution is not limited to money. Most of us spend our lives online.

Has the digital revolution gone too far?

Buried treasure

Yes. The bitcoin millionaires cut off from their fortunes are examples of the downfalls of the digital age. As we spend more time online, humanity is at risk of becoming disconnected from the physical world. The digital era is bad for society, mental health and the planet. It is no surprise that some are now choosing to turn their smartphones off.

It is not that simple. The digital revolution has done more to improve our lives than anything else. It represents convenience and personal freedoms. It is easy to be nostalgic, but few would argue that life during the pandemic would be better without online communication. We should embrace the digital world.

You Decide

  1. Do people today spend too much time online?


  1. Design your own digital or cryptocurrency. Think of a name for your currency and draw a picture of its logo.

Some People Say...

“The digital revolution is far more significant than the invention of writing or even of printing.”

Douglas Engelbart (1925 - 2013), American engineer and early Internet pioneer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that people today spend more of their waking hours using digital technology than ever before, so much so that big tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Instagram have all unveiled features to stop people mindlessly scrolling through the apps on their phones. So far, these “digital detox” strategies appear not to be working - in 2019, American adults spent 3 hours and 30 minutes every day using mobile internet, an increase of 20 minutes from a year before.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds whether cryptocurrencies are good or bad for society as a whole. Bitcoin was founded so that anyone could open their own digital bank account and hold money unregulated by any government. This is helpful for users in countries such as China or Venezuela, where authoritarian governments can raid traditional banks at will. But the anonymity of cryptocurrencies mean they are also popular with criminals looking to transfer money under the radar of authorities.

Word Watch

Encrypted digital currencies that are exchanged over the internet, bypassing banks. They can be traded and used to buy goods and services online.
Cowrie shells
A form of seashell used for centuries as a means of payment in Asia, Africa, Oceania, and even parts of Europe. The shells continued to be used as money in some areas until the 20th Century.
King Alyattes of Lydia
Now a part of modern-day Turkey, the first Lydian coins featured images of lions and bulls.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.