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What is Ethereum?

The aim of this article is to explain how Ethereum functions at a technical level, without complex math or scary-looking formulas. Even if you’re not a programmer, I hope you’ll walk away with at least better grasp of the tech. If some parts are too technical don’t worry. There’s really no need to understand every little detail. I recommend just focusing on understanding things at a broad level.

Chances are you’ve heard about the Ethereum blockchain, whether or not you know what it is. So what is it? In essence, a public database that keeps a permanent record of digital transactions. Importantly, this database doesn’t require any central authority to maintain and secure it much like Bitcoin and it’s blockchain. Instead it operates as a “trustless” transactional system — a framework in which individuals can make peer-to-peer transactions without needing to trust a third party OR one another.

Many of the topics covered in this post are a breakdown of the concepts discussed in the yellow paper. I’ve added my own explanations and diagrams to make understanding Ethereum easier. Those brave enough to take on the technical challenge can also read the Ethereum yellow paper.

What is a blockchain

A blockchain is a “cryptographically secure transactional singleton machine with shared-state.” Not an easy hrase to understand. Let’s break it down.

“Cryptographically secure” means that the creation of digital currency is secured by complex mathematical algorithms that are obscenely hard to break. Think of a firewall of sorts. They make it nearly impossible to cheat the system (e.g. create fake transactions, erase transactions, etc.)
“Transactional singleton machine” means that there’s a single canonical instance of the machine responsible for all the transactions being created in the system. In other words, there’s a single global truth that everyone believes in.
“With shared-state” means that the state stored on this machine is shared and open to everyone.

Ethereum implements this blockchain paradigm.

The Ethereum blockchain paradigm explained
The Ethereum blockchain is essentially a transaction-based state machine. In computer science, a state machine refers to something that will read a series of inputs and, based on those inputs, will transition to a new state.

With Ethereum’s state machine, we begin with a “genesis state.” This is analogous to a blank slate, before any transactions have happened on the network. When transactions are executed, this genesis state transitions into some final state. At any point in time, this final state represents the current state of Ethereum.


The state of Ethereum has millions of transactions. These transactions are grouped into “blocks.” A block contains a series of transactions, and each block is chained together with its previous block.