The Blockchain

Now, let's take a look at how all this data, that was calculated and transmitted efficiently with the use of a variety of formats, is stored in the blockchain. As you may suspect, efficiency and security are also priorities.


The blockchain data structure is an ordered, back-linked list of blocks of transactions. The blockchain can be stored as a flat file, or in a simple database. The Bitcoin Core client stores the blockchain metadata using Google's LevelDB database. Blocks are linked "back," each referring to the previous block in the chain. The blockchain is often visualized as a vertical stack, with blocks layered on top of each other and the first block serving as the foundation of the stack. The visualization of blocks stacked on top of each other results in the use of terms such as "height" to refer to the distance from the first block, and "top" or "tip" to refer to the most recently added block.

Each block within the blockchain is identified by a hash, generated using the SHA256 cryptographic hash algorithm on the header of the block. Each block also references a previous block, known as the parent block, through the "previous block hash" field in the block header. In other words, each block contains the hash of its parent inside its own header. The sequence of hashes linking each block to its parent creates a chain going back all the way to the first block ever created, known as the genesis block.

Although a block has just one parent, it can temporarily have multiple children. Each of the children refers to the same block as its parent and contains the same (parent) hash in the "previous block hash" field. Multiple children arise during a blockchain "fork," a temporary situation that occurs when different blocks are discovered almost simultaneously by different miners (see [forks]). Eventually, only one child block becomes part of the blockchain and the "fork" is resolved. Even though a block may have more than one child, each block can have only one parent. This is because a block has one single "previous block hash" field referencing its single parent.

The "previous block hash" field is inside the block header and thereby affects the current block's hash. The child's own identity changes if the parent's identity changes. When the parent is modified in any way, the parent's hash changes. The parent's changed hash necessitates a change in the "previous block hash" pointer of the child. This in turn causes the child's hash to change, which requires a change in the pointer of the grandchild, which in turn changes the grandchild, and so on. This cascade effect ensures that once a block has many generations following it, it cannot be changed without forcing a recalculation of all subsequent blocks. Because such a recalculation would require enormous computation (and therefore energy consumption), the existence of a long chain of blocks makes the blockchain's deep history immutable, which is a key feature of bitcoin's security.

One way to think about the blockchain is like layers in a geological formation, or glacier core sample. The surface layers might change with the seasons, or even be blown away before they have time to settle. But once you go a few inches deep, geological layers become more and more stable. By the time you look a few hundred feet down, you are looking at a snapshot of the past that has remained undisturbed for millions of years. In the blockchain, the most recent few blocks might be revised if there is a chain recalculation due to a fork. The top six blocks are like a few inches of topsoil. But once you go more deeply into the blockchain, beyond six blocks, blocks are less and less likely to change. After 100 blocks back, there is so much stability that the coinbase transaction – the transaction containing newly mined bitcoin – can be spent. A few thousand blocks back (a month) and the blockchain is settled history, for all practical purposes. While the protocol always allows a chain to be undone by a longer chain and while the possibility of any block being reversed always exists, the probability of such an event decreases as time passes until it becomes infinitesimal.


Structure of a Block

A block is a container data structure that aggregates transactions for inclusion in the public ledger, the blockchain. The block is made of a header, containing metadata, followed by a long list of transactions that make up the bulk of its size. The block header is 80 bytes, whereas the average transaction is at least 400 bytes and the average block contains more than 1900 transactions. A complete block, with all transactions, is therefore 10,000 times larger than the block header.  The structure of a block describes the structure of a block.

Table 1. The structure of a block

Size Field Description

4 bytes

Block Size

The size of the block, in bytes, following this field

80 bytes

Block Header

Several fields form the block header

1–9 bytes (VarInt)

Transaction Counter

How many transactions follow



The transactions recorded in this block


Block Header

The block header consists of three sets of block metadata. First, there is a reference to a previous block hash, which connects this block to the previous block in the blockchain. The second set of metadata, namely the difficultytimestamp, and  nonce, relate to the mining competition, as detailed in [mining]. The third piece of metadata is the merkle tree root, a data structure used to efficiently summarize all the transactions in the block. The structure of the block header describes the structure of a block header.

Table 2. The structure of the block header

Size Field Description

4 bytes


A version number to track software/protocol upgrades

32 bytes

Previous Block Hash

A reference to the hash of the previous (parent) block in the chain

32 bytes

Merkle Root

A hash of the root of the merkle tree of this block's transactions

4 bytes


The approximate creation time of this block (in seconds elapsed since Unix Epoch)

4 bytes

Difficulty Target

The Proof-of-Work algorithm difficulty target for this block

4 bytes


A counter used for the Proof-of-Work algorithm

The nonce, difficulty target, and timestamp are used in the mining process and will be discussed in more detail in [mining].


Block Identifiers: Block Header Hash and Block Height

The primary identifier of a block is its cryptographic hash, a digital fingerprint, made by hashing the block header twice through the SHA256 algorithm. The resulting 32-byte hash is called the block hash but is more accurately the  block header hash, because only the block header is used to compute it. For example, 000000000019d6689c085ae165831e934ff763ae46a2a6c172b3f1b60a8ce26f is the block hash of the first bitcoin block ever created. The block hash identifies a block uniquely and unambiguously and can be independently derived by any node by simply double hashing the block header with the SHA256 algorithm.

Note that the block hash is not actually included inside the block's data structure, neither when the block is transmitted on the network, nor when it is stored on a node's persistence storage as part of the blockchain. Instead, the block's hash is computed by each node as the block is received from the network. The block hash might be stored in a separate database table as part of the block's metadata, to facilitate indexing and faster retrieval of blocks from disk.

A second way to identify a block is by its position in the blockchain, called the block height. The first block ever created is at block height 0 (zero) and is the same block that was previously referenced by the following block hash 000000000019d6689c085ae165831e934ff763ae46a2a6c172b3f1b60a8ce26f. A block can thus be identified in two ways: by referencing the block hash or by referencing the block height. Each subsequent block added "on top" of that first block is one position "higher" in the blockchain, like boxes stacked one on top of the other.

In addition, the term current block height indicates the size of the blockchain in blocks at any given time. For example, the current block height on March 1, 2021 was approximately 672,722, meaning there were 672,722 blocks stacked on top of the first block created in January 2009.

Unlike the block hash, the block height is not a unique identifier. Although a single block will always have a specific and invariant block height, the reverse is not true – the block height does not always identify a single block. Two or more blocks might have the same block height, competing for the same position in the blockchain. This scenario is discussed in detail in the section [forks]. The block height is also not a part of the block's data structure; it is not stored within the block. Each node dynamically identifies a block's position (height) in the blockchain when it is received from the bitcoin network. The block height might also be stored as metadata in an indexed database table for faster retrieval.

Tip: A block's block hash always identifies a single block uniquely. A block also always has a specific block height. However, it is not always the case that a specific block height can identify a single block. Rather, two or more blocks might compete for a single position in the blockchain. 


The Genesis Block

The first block in the blockchain is called the genesis block and was created in 2009. It is the common ancestor of all the blocks in the blockchain, meaning that if you start at any block and follow the chain backward in time, you will eventually arrive at the genesis block.

Every node always starts with a blockchain of at least one block because the genesis block is statically encoded within the bitcoin client software, such that it cannot be altered. Every node always "knows" the genesis block's hash and structure, the fixed time it was created, and even the single transaction within. Thus, every node has the starting point for the blockchain, a secure "root" from which to build a trusted blockchain.

See the statically encoded genesis block inside the Bitcoin Core client, in chainparams.cpp.

The following identifier hash belongs to the genesis block:



You can search for that block hash in any block explorer website, such as, and you will find a page describing the contents of this block, with a URL containing that hash:

Using the Bitcoin Core reference client on the command line:

$ bitcoin-cli getblock 000000000019d6689c085ae165831e934ff763ae46a2a6c172b3f1b60a8ce26f

    "hash" : "000000000019d6689c085ae165831e934ff763ae46a2a6c172b3f1b60a8ce26f",
    "confirmations" : 308321,
    "size" : 285,
    "height" : 0,
    "version" : 1,
    "merkleroot" : "4a5e1e4baab89f3a32518a88c31bc87f618f76673e2cc77ab2127b7afdeda33b",
    "tx" : [
    "time" : 1231006505,
    "nonce" : 2083236893,
    "bits" : "1d00ffff",
    "difficulty" : 1.00000000,
    "nextblockhash" : "00000000839a8e6886ab5951d76f411475428afc90947ee320161bbf18eb6048"


The genesis block contains a hidden message within it. The coinbase transaction input contains the text "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks". This message was intended to offer proof of the earliest date this block was created, by referencing the headline of the British newspaper The Times. It also serves as a tongue-in-cheek reminder of the importance of an independent monetary system, with bitcoin's launch occurring at the same time as an unprecedented worldwide monetary crisis. The message was embedded in the first block by Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoin's creator.


Linking Blocks in the Blockchain

Bitcoin full nodes maintain a local copy of the blockchain, starting at the genesis block. The local copy of the blockchain is constantly updated as new blocks are found and used to extend the chain. As a node receives incoming blocks from the network, it will validate these blocks and then link them to the existing blockchain. To establish a link, a node will examine the incoming block header and look for the "previous block hash".

Let's assume, for example, that a node has 277,314 blocks in the local copy of the blockchain. The last block the node knows about is block 277,314, with a block header hash of:



The bitcoin node then receives a new block from the network, which it parses as follows:

    "size" : 43560,
    "version" : 2,
    "previousblockhash" :
    "merkleroot" :
    "time" : 1388185038,
    "difficulty" : 1180923195.25802612,
    "nonce" : 4215469401,
    "tx" : [

 #[... many more transactions omitted ...]



Looking at this new block, the node finds the previousblockhash field, which contains the hash of its parent block. It is a hash known to the node, that of the last block on the chain at height 277,314. Therefore, this new block is a child of the last block on the chain and extends the existing blockchain. The node adds this new block to the end of the chain, making the blockchain longer with a new height of 277,315. Blocks linked in a chain by reference to the previous block header hash shows the chain of three blocks, linked by references in the previousblockhash field.


Source: Andreas M. Antonopoulos,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 4:21 PM