BEARS 2021: Ralph Merkle

Computer Science Distinguished Alumnus - Industry

For groundbreaking work in cryptography, including the co-invention of public-key cryptography and the creation of other foundational methods in cryptography, including Merkle trees, Merkle signatures, and Merkle-Damgaard hashing.

Ralph Merkle

B.A. 1974 / M.S. 1977
Professor Emeritus of Molecular Technology at Singularity University and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing

Ralph Merkle, who was born in Berkeley, was an undergraduate studying Computer Science at Cal in the early 1970s when he devised a scheme for communicating over an insecure channel for a classroom assignment.  Known as Merkle's Puzzles, this key exchange protocol is now recognized as one of the earliest examples of public key cryptography.  After graduating with B.A. and M.S. degrees in 1977, Merkle attended Stanford where he earned a Ph.D. in 1979.  During this time, he invented Merkle Trees, which can be used to verify any kind of data stored, handled and transferred in and between computers, and the Merkle–Damgård construction, a method at the heart of many popular cryptographic hashing algorithms.

Merkle worked as a manager of compiler development at Elxsi from 1980 to 1988, a research scientist at Xerox PARC from 1988 to 1999, and a nanotechnology theorist for Zyvex from 1999 to 2003.  While at Xerox PARC, he designed the Khufu and Khafre block ciphers, and the Snefru hash function.  He as been a Senior Research Fellow at the Instituted for Molecular Manufacturing and a board member at the Alcor (cryonic) Life Extension Foundation since the late '90s.   Merkle was a Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Georgia Tech from 2003 to 2006, the Vice President of Technology Assessment at the Foresight Institute,  and a professor of molecular nanotechnology at Singularity University (an American company and business incubator that offers executive educational programs).

Merkle is married to EECS alumna and pioneering video game designer Carol Shaw (M.S. '98).   He received the ACM Paris Kanellakis Theory and Practice Award in 1996, Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology (for theory) in 1998, IEEE Kobayashi Computers and Communications Award in 1999, RSA Award in Mathematics in 2000, IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal in 2010, and the Levchin Prize for Real-World Cryptography in 2020.  He is a fellow of the International Association for Cryptologic Research (2008) and the Computer History Museum (2011), and was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2011.