Ralph Merkle is one of the world's most renowned computer scientists and cryptographers thanks to the creation of public key encryption and Merkle trees.

EThe name of Ralph Merkle, is one of the most recognized throughout the world in the area of ​​computing and cryptography. And it is not for less, because his ingenuity has been key to the creation of systems of great value in those areas. 

Ralph Merkle was born in Berkeley (California) in the year of 1952. His father, Theodore Charles Merkle, was at the time the director of the Pluto Project of USAF, which was building the first nuclear engine for airplanes. His childhood was surrounded by a clear scientific environment from an early age. In the midst of this atmosphere, his curiosity was greatly fueled. Examples like those of his father, who carried out one of the most ambitious projects in aeronautics, would mark his life in a unique way.

This is how his long and rich career began, one that would take him to one of the highest stages of world recognition. 


Merkle's educational path began to be forged in 1963 when he began his high school studies at the Livermore High School. This educational center is recognized as one of the most prestigious secondary schools in the United States. At the end of his secondary studies in 1970, he entered the University of California, Berkeley. In it, he graduated as a specialist in Computer Science in the year of 1974.

Later in 1977, he would present his Berkeley Master of Science in Computing. To achieve this distinction, he presented his thesis: Evaluators for Attribute Grammars (Evaluators for grammatical attributes). With this, Merkle presented a way to improve these tools and their use within programming languages. An optimizing vision of a titanic task in times when optimization was everything in computing.

Continuing with his studies, in 1979 he obtained his PhD in Electrical Engineering in the University of Stanford. To do this, he presented one of the most advanced cryptography works of its time, "Secrecy, authentication, and public key systems (Secret, authentication and public key systems) ". In this paper, Merkle discussed public key systems and their advantages in offering more robust security structures.

Beginnings in cryptography

Merkle's work as a cryptographer began before the end of his stay at Berkeley. It was during this period, under the guidance of Lance Hoffman, when Merkle presented his first work for the creation of a public encryption system. Merkle presented his development to Hoffman, who rejected it without further explanation. However, Merkle continued working on it to continue improving it. What Merkle did not know at the time was that his research was going to be completely revolutionary. No one had worked on the concept of public key crypto and there were no experts in that area. All this effort was even before Whitfield diffie y Martin hellman They will create the Diffie-Hellman protocol in 1977.

Despite the initial rejection his project received, Merkle was still looking for a space to publish it and make it known. In that search, Merkle contacted Bob fabry, a computer specialist. Fabry recognized the enormous value of this work and commented to Merkle the following:

"Publish it, make fame and fortune."

But that would be the biggest challenge for Merkle. Academic publication spaces were reluctant to accept his work. Especially since no one understood how a system that "send sensitive information in plain text over a network" could be safe. In 1975, during an attempt to publish in the ACM, Susan Graham forwarded a letter explaining what was it "impossible" publish your project.

The much questioned work was titled "Secure Communications over Insecure Channels (Secure Communications on Insecure Channels) ". It wasn't until 1978 that the project came to light. Merkle had to wait four years to see a world prepared to understand his ideas. It was a new concept, no one had talked about it. It had to be Ralph Merkle, a 22-year-old who had not yet graduated, who did it for the first time.

Evolution of their cryptographic works

During his attempts to publish his first work, Merkle continued to investigate other aspects that interested him. In 1976 Ralph Merkle and Martin Hellman published a joint paper on crypto-analysis: Results of an Initial Attempt to Cryptanalyze the NBS Data Encryption Standard. This cryptanalysis sought to deepen the capabilities and security of the DES encryption standard. Back then, this system was widely used by the United States and its allies.

Later in 1980, after having obtained his doctorate, he presented Protocols for Public Key Cryptosystems. This work was published in the IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy. With this new job, Merkle delved into the design and structuring of protocols for public key systems. These ideas were essential in the design and preparation of such systems, just as the revolution of the birth of the Internet loomed.

By 1989 Merkle published another brilliant work called A Certified Digital Signature. Published in Crypto 89, recounts how digital signature systems can transform the structure of trust in networks and those who participate in them.

During that same year and as part of his work within the Xerox PARC, Merkle designed the block encryption systems Khufu y Khafre, and the hash function Snefru.

Other works and areas of interest

Ralph Merkle is a multifaceted scientist. Of his jobs in computing, and not strictly linked to cryptography, the most important has been that of Merkle Trees. A unique tree structure that allows you to verify, quickly and inexpensively, the information of an entire data set. In fact, such a structure is vital in many technologies, especially in Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.

However, his genuine interest in science did not stop only in the computer field. He has also had important contributions in the field of nanotechnology and cryogenics. In the field of nanotechnology, his interest is focused on creating self-replicating systems. By researching them, Merkle seeks to innovate beyond current production methods. And it does so, pursuing the goal of creating devices that replicate themselves on a molecular and atomic scale.

Due to these investigations and theories, Merkle obtained in 1998 the recognition and award Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology for theory. On the other hand, his work in the field of cryogenics is closely related to his participation in the company. Alcor. Merkle and his wife Carol shawThey became members of the company in 1989. Since then, they have been part of the company's board of directors. Merkle reached the position of Director of Alcor in 1998 and since then maintains that position. As I point out, Alcor is the company where Hal Finney has been cryonic since 2014, after becoming his "Patient" number 128.

Additionally, it has been able to registrar more than 20 patents throughout his career as a researcher. Most of them are related to computer, cryptographic and nanotechnology systems.