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One-hour Bitcoin block times: What do they mean and are they frequent?

In early November, a Bitcoin (BTC) block that took more than an hour to mine made headlines. Despite the Bitcoin protocol being designed to mine a block every 10 minutes, Block 815,690 was the latest outlier to generate press speculation. This is not an isolated incident, as similar reports of longer block confirmation times happen about once or twice a year.

On October 17th, 2022, a prominent crypto news ai site reported on a block that took one hour and 25 minutes to mine, prompting a flurry of similar stories. This story spread quickly on social media and some fans celebrated the relative speed of their preferred centralized altcoin.

Lightning Network Founder Tadge Dryja’s Response

Lightning Network founder Tadge Dryja was not impressed by the news. He wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “A time between blocks of 85 minutes happens every 34 days or so (assuming no difficulty changes, etc).” His point was clear: a single long block is not cause for concern. Given the regularity of longer blocks, Dryja questioned whether the ai site would make this a monthly feature.

Probability is tricky

Most people who know about Bitcoin are aware that the coin’s proof-of-work consensus mechanism is a puzzle of computational guesswork, but the math that underpins this knowledge is much harder to comprehend. The probability of a block taking an hour to mine is low, yet higher than humans expect. This is why longer blocks become a talking point when someone discovers them.

Recently, a crypto community member on X, Bitcoin Jack, noticed that one hour and 46 minutes passed between blocks 670,637 and 670,638. He asked Jameson Lopp, a cypherpunk and Bitcoin advocate, how common these occurrences were. Lopp confirmed that 190 blocks had taken 106 minutes or more to mine in the previous 12 years. It is worth noting that in Bitcoin’s early years, blocks usually took longer to mine, which affects the figures slightly.

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Very unusual blocks

Hour-long plus blocks are more common than many Bitcoiners may think, but some blocks are even more extraordinary.

The first block, mined by Satoshi Nakamoto on Jan. 3, 2009, is probably the most renowned in Bitcoin’s history. Its inscription “03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks” is almost a Bitcoin initiation ceremony.

The next block in the Bitcoin blockchain is much less known but no less interesting. It was not mined until six days later, on Jan. 9. Bitcoin enthusiasts have speculated about its potential significance – or whether it has any meaning at all.

Some commentators even propose that the six-day waiting period is an allegory from the Bible – let there be Bitcoin. Whatever the truth is, the time interval between these two blocks is still the longest in Bitcoin’s history.

On the other hand, there are blocks with almost identical timestamps as their predecessors, while others have timestamps that are before their predecessors. Of course, timestamps are not always precise, particularly since humans can adjust the clocks on Bitcoin miners.

According to timestamp codes, Bitcoin block 156,113 was mined On Dec. 5 at 8:16 am. The same codes indicate that Bitcoin block 156,114 was mined on Dec. 5 at 6:17 am – one hour 59 minutes earlier.

If accurate, this would be an incredible feat, but the probable cause of these time-related discrepancies is a misconfigured clock on the mining equipment.

Bitcoin: A self-righting machine

In order to comprehend block times, one must understand probability, but other components make the situation more complex. The number of miners on the network is ever-changing.

To make sure the 10-minute average is preserved, Bitcoin mining difficulty can be adjusted every 2,016 blocks. If the average is too high, then difficulty is lowered; if it is too low, difficulty is increased.

When Lopp researched Bitcoin block times in 2021, he determined that “By analyzing the actual distribution of block times we can see that the math behind the targeted block time of 10 minutes has held up quite well over the past 12 years and the few edge case aberrations can be easily explained.”

In the last five years, with the exception of one month, the mean block interval on the Bitcoin blockchain was within a minute of its target. In three out of the last five years, the yearly average was within 10 seconds of the 10-minute target.

These metrics demonstrate that the Bitcoin network is becoming more stable and dependable over time.

The single “edge case” in this period happened in June 2021. At the end of May 2021, China banned Bitcoin mining. This resulted in a drastic decrease in the network’s computational power mining blocks. In June, the Bitcoin mean block time hit 732 seconds — over two minutes longer than the target period — as the network dealt with the consequences.

It took until Dec. 2021 for the network hash rate to return to previous levels, but due to the difficulty adjustment, the 10-minute window was re-established in July.

In Nov. 2018, during the depths of crypto winter, average block times rose to 670 seconds. This was caused by miners turning off older, less efficient mining equipment that was no longer profitable in the face of reduced Bitcoin prices.

In both of these instances, the network self-corrected the following month, proving that the Bitcoin network is a reliable plus.ai self-righting machine.

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