For years, a Welshman who threw away the key to his cybercurrency stash has been fighting to excavate the local landfill.
If things had gone just a bit differently, James Howells might today be as rich as the Queen of England. The decisive moment, he now thinks, occurred one evening in August, 2013, when he was twenty-eight and at home with his family in Newport, a small city on the Welsh coast. Howells and his partner, Hafina, were raising three children, and family trips—like the one that they had taken to Disneyland Paris—were fun but exhausting.
So he had made plans to treat himself to what he called a “lads’ vacation”: a trip with friends to a resort in Cyprus. Howells, an engineer who helped maintain emergency-response systems for various communities in Wales, often worked from home, and that night he decided to neaten up his office. As he recently recalled to me, “The thought process was: I’m going to be drinking every day. I don’t want to be on a hangover and cleaning this mess up when I get back.”
At around 10:30 P.M., Hafina peeked into Howells’s office. “She wanted to have a fag with me,” he remembers. “The office area, with the window open, was the smoking zone.” She chatted with Howells as he chose which items to discard. “I’m chucking this out, putting this back in—bunch of cables, bunch of paperwork, broken mouse.”
In a cluttered desk drawer, he found two small hard drives. One, he knew, was blank. The other held files from an old Dell gaming laptop, including e-mails, music that he’d downloaded, and duplicates of family photographs. He’d removed the drive a few years earlier, after he’d spilled lemonade on the computer’s keyboard. Howells grabbed the unwanted hard drive and threw it into a black garbage bag.
Later, when the couple slid into bed, Howells asked Hafina, who dropped off their kids at day care each morning, if she would mind taking the trash to the dump also. He remembers her declining, saying, “It’s not my fucking job—it’s your job.” Howells conceded the point. As his head hit the pillow, he recalls, he made a mental note to remove the hard drive from the bag. “I’m a systems engineer,” he said. “I’ve never thrown a hard drive in the bin. It’s just a bad idea.”
The next day, Hafina got up early and took the garbage to the landfill after all. Howells remembers waking upon her return, at around nine. “Ah, did you take the bag to the tip?” he asked. He told himself, “Oh, fuck—she’s chucked it,” but he was still groggy, and he soon fell back asleep.
In Cyprus, Howells didn’t have as much fun as he had expected. His mates noticed that he wasn’t drinking his share, and upon returning to Wales, he told me, he was “in a shit mood, and couldn’t figure out why.”
A couple of months later, Howells realized what was bothering him. He came across a BBC news story about a twenty-nine-year-old Norwegian man who had just used profits he’d made as a bitcoin holder to put a down payment on a four-hundred-thousand-dollar apartment in Oslo. When plans for bitcoin were first introduced, in 2008, it was one of a number of new cryptocurrencies being touted as substitutes for government-issued money. Initially, most people had treated bitcoin as a curiosity, but it had since risen significantly in value, and was now starting to find acceptance as something you could actually use for buying and selling things.
Howells had known about bitcoin from the start. Almost five years earlier, shortly after the cryptocurrency was developed, he’d learned about it in an online forum. The Bitcoin system, which operated by linking individual computers together to form a vast, secure network, appealed to him immediately. It reminded him of two applications he’d liked: Napster, the rogue service for sharing music files, and SETI@home, which allowed users to combine the power of their computers to search for extraterrestrial life. Howells downloaded free software that made it possible to acquire bitcoin.
He would lend his computer’s processing capabilities to help the Bitcoin system create a permanent record of network transactions, and, in return, the program would let him keep some currency. A private key—a unique chain of sixty-four numbers and letters—granted him exclusive access to his bitcoin stash. He soon set his gaming laptop to spend the overnight hours “mining bitcoin,” as the process came to be called.
The first time he mined, Howells’s computer was one of only five on the network. He told me, “I know this because when you’re in a Bitcoin network it tells you, on the bottom right, ‘You are connected to x amount of nodes,’ or machines.” He mined at night, off and on, for a couple of months. But the mining took a lot of processing power, causing the laptop to overheat. The computer’s whirring fan began to irritate Hafina, and he decided to stop.
“It wasn’t worth putting up a fight,” he remembers. The coins had no value at the time, and there was no reason to think that they ever would. “It was just mining for fun,” he said. “It was an experiment.” The electricity required to keep his computer going had cost him about ten pounds.
Howells threw himself into other side projects. The son of a carpenter, he was handy. For his children, he turned an upstairs room into an elaborate replica of Minecraft, the video game. The kids loved it, he told me.
Half a year later, the spilled lemonade destroyed his gaming laptop. He transferred some of the hard drive’s contents to a new iMac, but he did not bother with the bitcoin folder. “There was no Bitcoin version on Apple at the time, so there was no reason,” he recalls. He then extracted the hard drive and put it in the desk drawer.
According to the BBC article, the Oslo man had bought the apartment partly by selling a thousand bitcoins, which were then worth about a hundred and seventy thousand dollars. By the time Howells ended his mining project, he had accumulated eight thousand coins—and in the fall of 2013 that stash was worth about $1.4 million. Howells’s salary at his engineering job was a small fraction of that, and he sometimes had to get up at 3 A.M. and travel long distances to make repairs to a town’s emergency-response system. Panicked, he checked his desk drawer. In it, he found the empty hard drive—not the one with the bitcoin folder.
Bitcoin was first proposed in October, 2008, by Satoshi Nakamoto—a pseudonym, for one person or perhaps several. No central bank or organization would control bitcoin, a purely digital currency. The total amount of money minted would be capped at twenty-one million coins and could not be changed.
Digital currencies had been proposed before, but none had truly taken off: they either had flaws in their technical design or did not find enough early adopters. Nakamoto framed his proposal, with its focus on decentralization and the limit on the total amount of bitcoin, as a shrewd response to the financial crisis of 2008. Central banks had tried to ward off a depression by flooding their economies with money, a move that had spurred business activity but had also created the potential for runaway inflation to decrease the value of people’s savings.
Nakamoto declared that bitcoin could correct this flaw. In an early crypto forum, he explained that a fundamental drawback of conventional currencies was that their buying power depended on the whims of the government that backed them: “The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust.”
Howells read Nakamoto’s proposal soon after it was posted. He was already skeptical of power and those who had it. The neoliberal years had not been good for Howells’s generation in Wales: the coal mines had closed, reducing trade at the port, and Newport lacked jobs in other industries. “The elders own all the property,” Howells told me.
“People of my generation just leave.” The bailout of big banks after the 2008 crash taught him that “the dollar, the euro, and the pound are scams—the whole system is a sham.” He was an ideal apostle for the techno-utopianism of the Bitcoin system. “Me and Satoshi in 2009 both had the same vision,” Howells said.
Many of the first people who actually used bitcoin as money embraced the concept for a different reason: cryptocurrency transactions were untraceable. If someone paid you in bitcoin, you could evade taxes. If you bought drugs with bitcoin, the money you spent couldn’t be tied to you. Governments shut out of the global banking system could use bitcoin to buy weapons on the black market.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Money is not made in the light.” Bitcoin, then, was generated on a moonless night, at the bottom of a deep pit. As Nakamoto speculated in an early post, bitcoin “would be convenient for people who don’t have a credit card or don’t want to use the cards they have, either don’t want the spouse to see it on the bill or don’t trust giving their number to ‘porn guys.’ ”
Illicit activity likely helped bitcoin appreciate in value, but Howells was a libertarian, not a mobster. He liked that the Bitcoin system was borderless and incorporeal, as the rest of his online life was. He had been on the Internet every day since his early teens. During the nineties, when Wales had a brief tech boom, his mother had worked in a computer-chip factory, and she now worked in a betting shop. An appetite for a volatile cybercurrency was in his blood.
Though he had no plans to spend the bitcoin he mined, he was pleased that the government couldn’t track how much of it he had. On the Bitcoin network, a central record, called a blockchain, certifies the authenticity of all the coins that have been mined—close to nineteen million to date—but doesn’t reveal who has them. Imagine a list of all the world’s pieces of gold which lacks the names of their owners.
The downside to the system’s anonymity is that bitcoin is a tempting target for thieves. Just as Silas Marner tries to insure that nobody knows where he’s stashed his gold, bitcoin owners spend a lot of time insuring that no one can hack their fortunes. Some prefer to deposit their private keys in offline wallets—storage devices that are kept disconnected from the Internet—where they’re more secure from hackers.
Bitcoin is also easy to lose. Conventional money comes full of safeguards: paper currency is distinctively colored and has a unique feel; centuries of design have gone into folding wallets and zippered purses. And once your money is deposited in a bank you have a record of what you own. If you lose your statement, the bank will send you another. Forget your online password and you can reset it.
The sixty-four-character private key for your bitcoin looks like any other computer rune and is nearly impossible to memorize. It can also be difficult to remember where you have stored the key. On Reddit, one user, writing in 2019, complained that he had lost ten thousand bitcoins because his mother had thrown out his old laptop. Another early crypto user was irritated by a clicking sound on his hard drive and unthinkingly tossed it out. It contained a file with access to fourteen hundred bitcoins, which he had bought for twenty-five dollars.
From the start, users debated whether it was a feature or a bug of the system that bitcoin was so easy to lose. In a 2010 post to an online forum, a newbie named virtualcoin complained that bitcoin seemed risky. “If somebody’s losing his wallet (e.g. due to disk crash) he’s not able to get back his coins, is he?” the poster wrote.
“They’re lost forever?” A more experienced owner named Laszlo Hanyecz, a Web developer in Florida, asked what the big deal was—people lose their wallets in the ocean, and “it’s really not that significant.” Nakamoto weighed in a few hours later, and he was unapologetic: “Lost coins only make everyone else’s coins worth slightly more.”
According to Chainalysis, a firm specializing in cryptocurrency data, in Bitcoin’s first twelve years about three and a half million coins—nearly a fifth of the coins mined to date—were lost. Nakamoto himself dropped out of sight in 2011, and he has apparently not claimed his own bitcoin, which is now worth an estimated sixty billion dollars.
Howells remembers thinking it was a good thing that there was no way to access your bitcoin without a private key, because it meant that no one could seize your bitcoin, either. As he saw it, any compromise in this principle would have rendered bitcoin pointless, because that would allow the government and the banks to penetrate, and ultimately dominate, the system. “Bitcoin doesn’t work on bailouts,” he told me. “It is what it is. You’re unlucky, mate! Same as I now think of myself.”
When Howells had his uh-oh moment, his hard drive was already buried under other people’s trash. He wanted to go to the dump, but he was embarrassed—and afraid that nobody would believe his story. “Explaining Bitcoin at the time was not easy,” he recalls. So for about a month he told no one, and watched helplessly as the bitcoin market soared, and with it the value of his lost holdings. He remembers saying to himself, “Oh, shit—this is turning into a bigger and bigger mistake.” Around the time that his bitcoin became worth six million dollars, he confessed to Hafina.
She was shocked to learn of the potential windfall, and encouraged him to go to the dump to see if anything could be done. When he told the manager there that he’d accidentally thrown away about four million pounds, he got a lot of head shakes, but eventually the manager took him to an elevated spot to survey the site: the mounds of churned earth, the depot where trash was mixed with soil, the grassed-over areas of retired landfill. Howells’s heart sank: he saw ten to fifteen soccer pitches’ worth of garbage. How could he possibly sift through it all?
But then the manager gave him some cheering news. Dumps were not filled randomly—like computers, they had an architecture. Newport had organized its dump into different cells: asbestos was deposited in one location, general household trash in another. It would not be impossible to pinpoint the area where the hard drive was buried, then disinter it. All he needed was the city’s permission.
Howells went home and examined the dump on Google Maps. “There’s only a certain amount of space,” he told himself. “The amount of rubbish is finite. The object is findable.” He was like the protagonist of Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” William Legrand, when he first cracks a coded message on a piece of parchment and sees a huge treasure within his grasp. However, Legrand needs only a shovel to start digging. When Howells called the city’s refuse division and left a message asking to launch a search, nobody called back.
By now, he had asked in a Bitcoin forum if there was another way to get his private key without physically recovering his drive—even though, he told me, “I knew there wasn’t.” On Twitter and other sites, he fielded many amazed responses. To some, the ease with which the coins had come to Howells seemed like a fantasy or a story from an already distant past: Nakamoto had designed bitcoin mining so that it required more and more computer power as the number of unmined coins decreased. “Did you really mine 7500 bitcoins in only a week?” one commenter asked. (Today, according to a Times report, it would require an American home with average electricity consumption at least thirteen years to mine a single bitcoin.) Others were eager to lend a hand in recovering his drive.
“Email me,” one wrote. “I’ll help you find your coins and make a movie about it, no cost to you and we’ll have a blast.” Another offered help in finding a team of psychics and “a few diggers who will do the dirty work.” A young woman at the University of Bristol wanted to make Howells a subject of her dissertation, in which she hoped “to investigate the ‘affective atmospheres of cryptocurrency.’ ”
A reporter from the Guardian got wind of Howells’s story. At first, Newport officials said that if they found the drive they would of course give it back, but later they adopted a more hard-line stance. How could Howells be sure that the hard drive had been placed in the landfill? In any case, they cautioned, the drive was likely unusable: it would have been destroyed en route to its noxious burial place. And, besides, the environmental risk of a retrieval would be too great.
Howells studied the technology behind hard drives and came to believe that the city officials were wrong. Although the covering of the drive was metal, the disk inside was glass. “It’s actually coated in a cobalt layer that is anti-corrosive,” Howells told me. He conceded that the hard drive would have been subjected to some compacting when it was layered in with soil and other trash. But, however rough the process, it might not have fractured the disk and destroyed the drive’s contents. Howells told me he’d learned that, in 2003, when the Columbia space shuttle plunged to Earth, one of its hard drives was “burned to a crisp,” but its data could still be retrieved.
“They managed to recover ninety-nine per cent of the data,” he said. At one point, Howells reached out to the company that NASA had contracted with: Ontrack, a data-recovery firm based in Minneapolis. According to Howells, the company estimated that, if the disk hadn’t cracked, there was an eighty-to-ninety-per-cent chance that the data he needed could be salvaged. Howells’s bitcoin folder, which contained only his private key and the history of his transactions on the network, took up a tiny amount of disk space—“just thirty-two kilobytes!” he told me. He was certain that, as long as that part of the disk was undamaged, he could recover his fortune.
As Howells tried to ready a plan to present to officials in Newport, the value of the cryptocurrency kept rising. More and more garbage piled on top of the hard drive, and the private key for his bitcoin sank deeper and deeper. In 2017, the city rejected his request to attempt an exhumation, citing an adviser’s statement: “There appears to be no practical way that the drive could be recovered.”
By the beginning of 2018, Howells had more than a hundred million dollars buried in the Newport dump. He kept pleading his case to city officials. He called his local member of the Welsh Parliament, in Cardiff, and of the British Parliament, in London. He thought of suing Newport, but such moves, commonplace in America, are rare in the United Kingdom. “I’m not a court person,” Howells told me.
As a systems engineer, he knew how to organize a project, and through the years he assembled an increasingly sophisticated strategy for finding the hard drive. He met with potential investors, and eventually made arrangements with two European businessmen who agreed to support a recovery operation. Howells would get only about a third of the proceeds. He had hoped for a much higher sum; the money was his, after all.
He recalls being told, “James, that’s not how it works.” He also consulted with companies that could perform targeted landfill removals. He became increasingly convinced that this was a realistic path. (“They probably move more dirt in one season of ‘Gold Rush: Alaska’ than would be required for this operation,” he told me.)
This past January, he obtained a letter from Ontrack testifying that the drive was likely recoverable, and, after the Newport dump manager who’d explained to him the architecture of the landfill retired, Howells enlisted him as an expert.
Earlier this year, as the value of each bitcoin passed thirty-five thousand dollars, and Howells’s holdings exceeded two hundred and eighty million dollars, he made a public offer to give Newport a twenty-five-per-cent cut of the proceeds, which could be earmarked for a COVID
-19 relief fund. The city did not accept his offer. “The attitude of the council does not compute, it just does not make sense,” Howells complained to the Guardian. Across the Internet, commenters generally did not take a sympathetic view of Howells’s situation. “Your loss fool,” a poster on the Web site WalesOnline declared. “This is the ultimate definition of a ‘Loser,’ ” another wrote, adding, “Wondering how this guy even survived into adulthood.”
For Howells, it was a particularly cruel twist that he could not get a serious meeting with Newport officials despite having become arguably the city’s most famous resident. He had thought that he was striking a blow for the little guy by mining bitcoin; now it was clear that, in Newport at least, little guys still had no power. “It’s my own local team who are screwing me over!” he told me. “It’s not bankers, it’s not somebody from a far distance—it’s the people I’ve grown up with and lived with.”
This past May, Howells finally was granted a Zoom meeting with two city officials, one of whom was responsible for Newport’s waste and sanitation services. She listened politely to his proposal to recover the bitcoin, at no cost to the city, but was not persuaded. As he recalls it, she informed him, “You know, Mr. Howells, there is absolutely zero appetite for this project to go ahead within Newport City Council.” When the meeting ended, she said that she would call him if the situation changed. Months of silence followed. (A spokesperson for the city council told me that the official permit for the site does not allow “excavation work.”)
Earlier this fall, I went to see Howells in Newport. We had been talking and texting for nearly a year, mostly on the messaging app Telegram. He had been by turns evasive and defensive, often coming across as an unyielding cyber libertarian. Tech shaped his world view. At one point, I asked him what he thought about the still novel COVID
. He replied, “Something I’ve learnt from IT world . . . don’t ever get the first version.”
This past January, when online brokerage companies restricted trading in GameStop
stock in order to limit its price rise, Howells wrote to me, “It shows once and for all, in plain view of everyone watching, that the game (life) is completely and utterly rigged against the little guy.” While we affably fenced, the value of a bitcoin rose to sixty-three thousand dollars in April, then slumped to thirty thousand dollars in July, then rose again.
On October 21st, the day I arrived in Newport, the value of a bitcoin had just hit a new peak: nearly sixty-seven thousand dollars. Howells met me by the train station, wearing jeans and a crisp sweatshirt from Lonsdale. He drives a twenty-year-old BMW convertible that he bought before his bitcoin days. He is small and fit, with a skin-fade haircut and a light-brown half beard. The over-all effect was of concision and capability.
Moments after we sat down in a coffee shop, he pulled out his phone and showed me an app that he uses to track his holdings. Under the rubric “Unspent Coins” was the current value of his bitcoin: $533,963,174. The previous day, he noted, he’d made twenty million dollars. We had Welsh pancakes, and he paid with cash. He explained, “Using credit cards is kind of enabling the opposition, if you see what I mean.”
We next went on a tour of Newport, and he told me about the city’s history of finding lost objects, a topic on which he was very well informed. As we drove across the River Usk, he mentioned that, in 2002, while the city was building a new arts center along its banks, workers had dug up a fifteenth-century Iberian sailing ship.
The next day, we visited the local antiquities museum, where he showed me a cooking pot, likely belonging to a Roman soldier, that had been buried in a nearby field. From the shattered remains trickled a trail of coins.
Howells compared them to his buried hard drive, then corrected himself: the coins were not like bitcoin at all. Sometimes, he explained, messengers and go-betweens had clipped off a bit of precious metal to repay themselves for the trouble of handling transactions. “People stole from the coins,” he said. The percentage of silver in Roman coins kept declining, setting off runaway inflation. “It’s similar to what the central banks are doing today,” he said. The widespread use of bitcoin, he assured me, would prevent a similar economic collapse.
We went to the dump. It was a bucolic site between an estuary and docks where, many years ago, ships had been loaded with Welsh coal. Derricks stood idle. To get to the landfill, we had to drive past some city offices—“the enemy,” Howells joked. Newport felt rickety: faded signs on small businesses, empty land where factories had once stood. As he drove, Howells mused on why the local officials had refused to allow him to dig up his hoard.
He theorized that the dump had not been following environmental regulations, and that unearthing a section of landfill could embarrass the city and make it vulnerable to lawsuits. “Who knows how many dirty baby nappies are buried out there?” he asked.
He drove to the area where he had estimated that his hard drive would likely be. We passed through an open gate and stopped in a paved lot. This large, empty space looked like it was destined for some sort of industrial development by the city, but Howells wanted it to serve first as the command headquarters for his excavation project. We got out. “This plot of land is called B-21,” he said—a propitious number. “How many bitcoins exist? Twenty-one million!”
The sun was shining, an unusual occurrence in Wales in the fall. He pointed at an incline about a hundred feet away: at the top was a tufted hill with gauges inserted in it, to measure gas release. “The total area we want to dig is two hundred and fifty metres by two hundred and fifty metres by fifteen metres deep,” he told me, with excitement. “It’s forty thousand tons of waste. It’s not impossible, is it?”
After our visit to the dump, Howells invited me to his house, so that I could see a PowerPoint presentation he’d delivered, on Zoom, to the Newport officials. His project, he told me, was budgeted at five million pounds, but “there is scope for additional funding.” He calculated that a crew of twenty-five could complete the job in nine months to a year. As he spoke, his dog, Ruby, ran back and forth at our feet. Before he showed me the slides, we went down the street to buy beer and crisps at the nearest convenience store. He had equipped the cashier to accept bitcoin a few years ago, but it had not proved a success. “No one used it but me,” Howells said, shrugging. He gave the proprietor two pounds, and a pound that he owed from an earlier visit.
We returned to his house. On a wall of the living room, above his computer, was a gold-and-black Bitcoin clock. Its hands were stopped. Howells checked his holdings. He was down twenty-two million dollars that day, but he was unperturbed. “I expected this,” he said. “Whenever it shoots up so fast, you always have to expect it to come down a little. In fact, I expect it to come down a lot more.”
He loaded the PowerPoint presentation and pulled up a slide titled “Consortium Members.” An avatar of Howells was at the center, with a pickaxe and a bag of gold. Another slide depicted a flowchart of the process by which his hard drive would be returned to him: dump trucks would carry items from the pit to a hopper, which would feed them onto a conveyor belt, from which “the material would pass under a large 3-D object detection system to identify all hard drive objects for manual retrieval.” The object detector was an X-ray machine outfitted with artificial-intelligence software. “It can spot a gun inside a truck!” Howells told me. All detritus would be loaded onto forty-ton trucks and then, according to Newport’s preference, would be reburied, incinerated, or sent to China.
I said that surely there was an easier way. The whole point of bitcoin was that it was immaterial. It was the eight thousand bitcoins that he was after, and they were the product of a computer algorithm. It was a matter of public record that someone owned them. Why not just run the system backward to the day that Howells mined his coins, and let him re-mine them?
Howells recoiled. My proposal reminded him, he said, of the worst moment in cryptocurrency history. In 2016, the managers of a competing cryptocurrency platform, Ethereum, agreed to restore the equivalent of sixty million dollars to one of the currency’s holders, after the money was stolen through a vulnerability in the system’s code. Howells had publicly disagreed with this decision at the time—he has been very active on crypto social-media sites—and when Ethereum’s holders split into two camps he sided with those who refused to acknowledge the rollback. Howells told me, with considerable passion, “Just for the record, if somebody came along and said, ‘We can get your five hundred million by doing it this way,’ I’d say, ‘No, thank you.’ Because if they can do it that way for my coins, then they can do it that way for anyone’s coins. And then, if the government asked them to seize someone’s coins, guess what? They could do that as well.”
To my surprise, the loss of his hard drive had not dimmed Howells’s interest in cryptocurrency. He had set his father up with a small amount of crypto, and had even returned to mining for himself a few years ago, using a set of ten S9s—powerful processors that he ran day and night for a year and a half. But the economics of bitcoin mining had changed too much to make it worthwhile: the cost of the electricity exceeded the value of what he mined. The venture was another failure for him.
His notoriety as a bitcoin miner made him feel like a potential target: “Most intelligent people know that I’ve lost my coins, but the bozo local drug dealer with his friends, they don’t know that. That’s what worries me.” He explained that he kept the private keys for some of his crypto in offline wallets that were stored outside the house—or “off site,” as he put it. That way, if a thief broke in and demanded them, he wouldn’t be able to hand them over. This safety measure also prevented him from impulsively divesting himself of his holdings: to sell crypto, you need the relevant private key. Despite everything, he was still in it for the long haul.
Howells took me up to the second floor, to see where the hard drive had been. The dog patrolled the stairs. “Ruby was basically the kids’ dog,” he explained. “And when we split up, and they left, she didn’t want to take the dog.” It turned out that Hafina had left several years ago with their children. I asked him if the bitcoin loss had played a role in their breakup. “The truth?” he said. “I tried publicly, and within my normal life, not to blame her, but I think subconsciously I did.”
Looking around, you could see that time had stood still in the house since then. There was dust on everything. The Minecraft-inspired wallpaper he’d installed to please the children was peeling. The blue-and-white paint was chipping. The sheets on the bunk beds were crumpled and stale, as if the kids had left in a hurry and never come back.
He told me that his children were into other things now, and didn’t visit anymore. He did not wish to discuss any romantic relationships that he’d had since Hafina left. “I try to keep to myself,” he told me. “Women are costly.”
Howells was no longer employed. For more than a year after the loss of the hard drive, he had continued at his job as a systems engineer. To make the workday tolerable, he’d limited how often he consulted the bitcoin-tracking app. He’d even tried to avoid driving routes that took him by the dump. But, eventually, the memory of the money he had thrown away overpowered his work ethic. “I kind of lost the motivation,” he explained.
Earlier, he had told me that his favorite movies were “Fight Club” and “The Matrix”—typical fare for a young man with his beliefs. Now he mentioned the horror franchise “Final Destination,” in which the smallest mistakes—a loose screw, a malfunctioning pool drain—lead to gruesome deaths. The lesson, he said, was “how one little thing can have a knock-on effect.” He told me he could imagine a different past for himself, one without trouble.
“For example, if this bitcoin thing hadn’t happened, I’d probably still be with my ex-partner,” he said. “And now married. Living a completely different life, as we would have done on our original trajectory.” And if he had mined the bitcoin and not thrown away the drive? “We’d still be living happily ever after—living on a yacht. She was my girl, you know what I mean? We’d been together since I was twenty and she was twenty-two.”
Hafina, who confirmed Howells’s account of how the hard drive wound up in the dump, says that the relationship ended “not because of the bitcoin” but for other reasons.
Howells’s efforts to recover the money had clearly taken a toll on him. Like Poe’s Legrand, he was “infected with misanthropy, and subject to perverse moods of alternate enthusiasm and melancholy.” He had spoken to the press mainly in the hope that it might help him secure his treasure, and he admitted to me that some of his interviews hadn’t been entirely honest. To throw potential thieves off his trail, he said, he had fudged the number of bitcoins he had mined. (He showed me his bitcoin ledger, confirming that the true number was eight thousand.) When I insisted on confirming information directly with his business associates, he resisted, claiming that I might leak the information to a rival excavation team.
If there is any lesson to be learned from people who missed out on a bitcoin payoff, it’s that it’s more emotionally healthy to try to let it go. In 2010, Laszlo Hanyecz, the Web developer in Florida, offered to pay ten thousand bitcoins to anyone who would sell him a couple of pizzas.
Someone took him up on his offer, accepting the bitcoin and giving him two pies from Papa John’s. The value of the bitcoin Hanyecz traded is now worth more than half a billion dollars. On the anniversary of the pizza incident, May 22nd, he often re-states his lack of regret to an increasingly skeptical public and press. Hanyecz likes to note that he was working on bitcoin back when Nakamoto was active, and that at one point he asked him whether the system would be endangered if many of the bitcoins were lost.
Nakamoto replied, “Think of it as a donation to everyone.” I asked Hanyecz if he had any advice for Howells. “Move on,” he said. “No sense in dwelling on what-ifs.” He added that it was not too late to buy fresh bitcoin and still make a handsome profit.
Hafina says that the loss of the bitcoin never bothered her. She noted, “It has not been a physical thing. Money has never meant that much to me.”
Howells isn’t yet capable of such an equanimous response to his bad luck. His frustration isn’t about what he could buy with half a billion dollars, he explained. He hadn’t mined the bitcoin to get rich: “It wasn’t about making money. It was about changing money.” In the eight years since the hard drive went into the dump, he’s occasionally come across something expensive that he’s coveted.
Two months ago, for instance, the owners of Manchester United offered up for sale a portion of their shares. But he did not strike me as a greedy man. What he could not seem to shake was the allure of the money itself. A stupendous fortune had, against the longest odds, passed into his hands, and now it was gone.
Shortly after I returned home, Howells intensified his push for a response to his Zoom session with the Newport officials. In mid-November, he was told again that the project was too uncertain and the process too environmentally risky.
“I appreciate that this is not the outcome you will have been hoping for,” the city’s chief executive wrote, with sedulous indifference. “But please be assured that your request has been carefully and appropriately considered by the Council.”
Upset, Howells soon sent me a message: “Jesus, if they had just met with me in 2013, Newport City would now look like f *cking Bel Air.” It hurt him, he said, that the city didn’t care that he had Ontrack and the former site manager of the dump in his corner. For the first time in the year since I’d begun speaking to him, he wasn’t angry, elated, or determined: he seemed close to despair.
I tried to keep his spirits up, saying that this was just Round One in a long-term fight. “More like the end of round #3 . . . and they are winning 6-10 every round,” he wrote. “I don’t really know what else to try.”
Within a few days, he had bounced back. He was going to propose a feasibility study to the city now, a proof of principle that a recovery operation could work. He told me that when he finally found his lost private key he planned to listen to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” as a way of marking his graduation from bitcoin purgatory. In a text conversation, we had talked about the likelihood that the value of his stash would keep rising.
“It’s not even a maybe,” he wrote. “Over time the price of bitcoin against fiat will only go ONE way, up.” He foresaw a battle that might last “2/5/10 years.” He anticipated his fortune being worth one billion dollars, then two billion, and eventually five billion. That might finally motivate the city. Or maybe more publicity would. Or legislative pressure. Or better technology.
On November 8th, his bitcoin had just risen to a new high: nearly five hundred and fifty million dollars. “I still hope and feel it can be done,” he told me. “And as long as I feel that I will keep trying. Does that make sense?”