Looking through Ben’s GitHub you begin to appreciate how voracious his creative energy is – meeting him IRL more than confirms these suspicions. I first met him in the backyard of the inaugural 2019 Lightning Conference in Berlin. I was admittedly fueled with limitless, practically free beer from the Lightning Beertap but Ben was brimming with limitless Celtic zeal. He’s a juggernaut of ideas, a self-taught, self-styled, dirty hacktivist who throws his considerable talent and charm into bleeding edge Lightning hardware and OpenSource projects.
“The #1 issue people have with BTC is volatility but with LN just used as a payment rail that doesn’t even matter. No matter what happens, LN is here to stay. “
Ben’s always been interested in computers and perhaps in another life he’d have had a more computer based background but that wasn’t the case and he’s glad for it. Instead he had a very rewarding 15 year career as a Design & Technology teacher in Wales, sometimes covering lessons in Electronics too.
He specialised in teaching kids with severe behavioural difficulties in special needs classes. Electronics was particularly kinaesthetic and both he and the kids got a real buzz out of those early tinkering projects. For many of his kids, soldering electronics was the one thing that made them sit still. Ben developed a rudimentary understanding of electronics and computing, spinning up WordPress sites and PHP plugins.
The unit where he worked was hit hard by UK economic austerity policies and his services got the squeeze. As disheartening as this clearly must have been it provided him an opportunity to take some time off and pursue his increasing curiosity into tinkering & hacking.
“Bitcoin can & will reduce the power of the State over people by taking away their control over monetary supply.”
The first Bitcoin event he attended was a Maker centric Lightning Hackday in Berlin and like a kid in a candy store, the QR code Sweet Machine caught his attention the most. You could scan the screen’s QR code and go to a website, pay a LN invoice and sweets would come out of the machine.
He saw the potential benefits for the machine itself not to be a full node but rather a secondary device for a full node. So he started playing around with microcontrollers, generating invoices on the machine’s screen and things began snowballing. In a way every LN project he’s done since has been an offshoot from this Sweet Machine concept.
“The word ‘hack’ literally comes from hacking away at a keyboard to make software/hardware eventually do something useful.”
He began to have the opportunity to work on original projects most days, in a sense whatever he wanted. So he sat down and started making stuff, tinkering. One of his first Lightning software projects he made was the Sinclair Faucet using LN-URL. It allowed QR codes to be programmed with value and withdrawal frequency, printed or displayed and drained by people scanning it using their mobile LN wallets. RustyRussel is now building something akin to this into Lightning’s protocol level with Bolt12.org. It’ll enable static but private LN QR codes – groundbreaking stuff and in direct lineage of Ben’s tinkering.
“Bitcoin needs to be safe & conservative software. But over time, all the fun stuff will come. We’ve just gotta be patient.”
The first Lightning hardware project he made was a modified Sweet Machine which then evolved into a basic POS device for a bar. He discovered the M5Stack and it’s faces kit with a keypad and screen built into a handheld unit. He piloted it at Room77, Berlin’s infamous Hacker Bar, where it received some battle testing with a tonne of transactions. It stood up well.
Next he plugged in a coin acceptor, created LN faucets and made a LN ATM device. It needed admin access to a wallet, to spend from a wallet essentially. This conundrum birthed his realisation that LN would benefit from a piece of middleware software that connected to common backend funding sources like LNDhub, BlueWallet, Raspiblitz, Umbrel & OpenNode. These were the sources currently funding ATMs. His unifying solution to this issue led to a project whose implications are only now emerging – LNBits.
LNBits recently received a grant from the Human Rights Foundation of 25 million sats to recognise it’s empowering contribution to Free Open Source Software development. In essence, it allows users to quickly spin up something akin to a Lightning server, connect it to a funding source and generate multiple wallets via a simple GUI. Each wallet has users and its own API keys which can connect to devices like an ATM. The innovation is that each wallet and device only has access to the set amount of funds within its own wallet. LNBits manages this as the middleware that sits on top of principle funding sources and reduces their exposure risk.
“LNBits came from making a LN ATM, hitting the stumbling block of needing multiple wallets & seeking the simplest, most interoperable, native Lightning software solution.”
It came from necessity rather than any divine intervention or genius, he says, but perhaps the best ideas always do. I have the sneaky suspicion LNBits is going to snowball alongside growth of Lightning itself into something far more than people realise right now. Already it’s begun integrating a wealth of plugins including a LN Spotify Jukebox, paywalls, livestreaming, ticketing and POS systems.
“We have >20 extensions from many contributors so we need a WordPress plugin like library to catalogue them. “
Ben’s never formally trained or worked as a Developer and continues to learn on the job, at conferences and Hackday events. He’s progressed by picking people’s brains. His character seems ideally suited to the job though, equal parts bright and inquisitive, humble and persistent. The skills he’s aggregated are opening doors into Lightning at a particularly exciting moment in it’s history. Perhaps it fate. He’s presenting at the Hacker Congress in Prague this month and at Adopting Bitcoin in El Salvador Nov 2021.
“Eventually in a Star Trek Utopia, we’ll have BTC as the interplanetary universal Medium of Exchange. I hope some of this weird sci-fi software & hardware will be useful to someone IRL, but if not, it’s fun anyway.”
With his focus on grassroots, bottom-up, dirty hacking he’s opening the gates of OpenSource LN development to exactly the people who need it most. The cheapest hardware with the simplest LN software is precisely the niche that countries like El Salvador, Brazil, Laos, Nigeria and every other country that’s opening up to Bitcoin needs right now. He’s already helping stores, bars, salons and hairdressers in El Salvador set up cheap POS devices and LNBits stacks. This, ladies and gentleman, is how OpenSource money wins.
“Ben’s the right man, in the right place, with the right skills, doing the right things. “