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Reprinted from the How Bitcoin works page:

Mining set up help

For a simple 10 step guide to set your self up with bit coin mining without any hassle, please visit [ this page.] the site shows you what programs to download in what order offers all links as well as a common problems section.

High Level Description

Mining bitcoins is the process of generating blocks for the block chain, which is a way of processing and verifying transactions. Adding a block to the block chain is difficult, requiring time and processing power to accomplish. So what incentive does anyone have to spend the effort to produce a block, if it takes up all these resources? The answer is that the person who manages to produce a block gets a reward. This reward is two-fold. First, the block producer gets a bounty of some number of bitcoins, which is agreed-upon by the network. (Currently this bounty is 50 bitcoins; this value will halve every 210,000 blocks.) Second, any transaction fees that may be present in the transactions included in the block, get claimed by the block producer.

This gives rise to the activity known as "bitcoin mining" - using processing power to try to produce a valid block, and as a result 'mine' some bitcoins. The network rules are such that the difficulty is adjusted to keep block production to approximately 1 block per 10 minutes. Thus, the more miners engage in the mining activity, the more difficult it becomes for each individual miner to produce a block. The higher the total difficulty, the harder it is for an attacker to overwrite the tip of the block chain with his own blocks (which enables him to double-spend his coins. See the weaknesses page for more details).

Besides being important for maintaining the transaction database, mining is also the mechanism by which bitcoins get created and distributed among the people in the bitcoin economy. The network rules are such that over the next hundred years, give or take a few decades, a total of 21 million bitcoins will be created. Rather than dropping money out of a helicopter, the bitcoins are awarded to those who contribute to the network by creating blocks in the block chain.