Ralph C. Merkle is an American computer scientist known as the inventor of cryptographic hashing, one of the inventors of public key cryptography, a researcher and lecturer in molecular nanotechnology and cryonics and winner of many awards. That is why today we will delve into his life and contributions to the world of blockchain.
Ralph C. Merkle was born in Berkeley, California, on February 2, 1952.
He studied computer science at the University of California, Berkeley, earning his BA in 1974, and an MS in 1977. In 1979 he received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University, with a thesis entitled Secrecy, Authentication and Public Key Systems.
During college, Merkle discovered what is now known as Merkle’s Puzzles, a method of securing electronic communications using a cryptographic key exchange system. During his doctorate he invented the world’s oldest public key cryptographic system.
Merkle was development manager at Elxsi since 1980.
In 1988, he worked as a researcher at Xerox PARC and was researching nanotechnology. In 2003, he became a distinguished professor at Georgia Tech, where he directed the Center for Information Security.
In 2006 he worked in San Francisco as a senior researcher at IMM, was a faculty member at Singularity University and a board member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation.
In 2000 he won the RSA Prize in Mathematics and in 2010 the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal.
As we have already advanced, Ralph Merkle contributed a lot to cryptography and blockchain technology as he is known as the father of modern public key cryptography and the creator of the Merkle Tree, essential for blockchain efficiency and integrity.
In 1974, while still a college student, Merkle invented the concept known as Merkle Puzzle. This system allows two parties to exchange secrets by exchanging messages, even if they have never exchanged secrets before, without anyone else overhearing their exchange.
In other words, the communication between the two parties makes it possible to create a shared secret key that is impossible for a potential intruder to deduce.
The key can be used later during further communication, protected by symmetric encryption.
The Merkle Puzzle was one of the first ideas for a public key system.
Five years later, he and his partner Ivan Damgård came up with another innovative concept known as the Merkle construction – Damgård, cryptographic hash function, which Merkle published as his Ph.D. thesis. It is an idea that plays an important role in the Merkle Tree.
In cryptography, the Merkle-Damgård construction is a method for constructing collision-resistant cryptographic hash functions from collision-resistant one-way compression functions.
This construct was used in the design of many hash algorithms such as MD5, SHA-1 and SHA-2.
It is safe to say that the Merkle Tree is one of the reasons why blockchain technology has become so successful today.
It is a way of structuring data that allows to verify the accuracy of a large amount of information in an extremely efficient and fast way. Basically, the Merkle Tree takes a huge number of transaction IDs and runs them through a mathematical process that results in a 64-character code, which is called the Merkle Root. Merkle Root is vital because it enables any computer to quickly verify that a specific transaction took place in a specific block as accurately as possible.
No wonder then that Merkle, with his Tree, has changed the world of cryptography, including the way encrypted computer protocols work, becoming a crucial component of the technology that today underpins cryptocurrencies.