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Ralph Merkle

2011 Fellow

For his work, with Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman, on public key cryptography.


Undergraduate cryptography project proposal, 1974
Undergraduate cryptography project proposal, 1974

Ralph Merkle was born in Berkeley, California, in 1952. He received his B.S. in computer science (1974) from UC Berkeley and an M.S. (1977) and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University (1979).

As an undergraduate in 1974, Merkle discovered a general method of securing electronic communications using a system of cryptographic key exchange now known as Merkle's Puzzles. Unfortunately, the idea was met with disinterest by his professors, and languished until Merkle learned about Martin Hellman and Whitfield Diffie at Stanford.

Merkle joined the team at Stanford for a summer in 1976 and became a doctoral candidate under Hellman the following fall. Working with Diffie and Hellman, Merkle developed the world's earliest public key cryptographic system. Their insight underpins secure transactions on the Internet, enabling e-commerce and a host of other interactions in which secure electronic communications are required.

On graduation, Merkle worked for Elxsi, a small computer company in Silicon Valley. Since 1988, Merkle has been researching nanotechnology and, in 2003, became a distinguished professor at Georgia Tech before returning to California in 2006.

He has been awarded the RSA Award in Mathematics (2000) and the IEEE Richard W. Hamming Medal (2010).