1978: Crypto Roots and Merkle Trees - Throwback Thursday, Part 1

A brief review of the way Dr. Ralph Merkle's research on public key cryptosystems have shaped blockchain and cryptocurrency and how he sees the technology developing moving froward.

1978: Crypto Roots and Merkle Trees - Throwback Thursday, Part 1
Article by
Michael Naftaliev
Date Published
November 2, 2023

In a rapidly-evolving digital landscape, there are certain moments in history which serve as essential milestones. The foundational 'blocks' on which web3 stands today were not built overnight, but rather laid down over decades. Great minds and a passion for improving systems contributed incrementally to the innovation we enjoy today and likewise, moments of failure were instrumental, through the lessons they taught us.

The late 1970s saw important contributions by computer scientist and mathematician Ralph Merkle. Retrospectively, we see that one such moment occurred when Dr. Ralph Merkle published his paper titled "Protocols for Public Key Cryptosystems" in Feb. 1978, reviewing available cryptosystems and issuing a call for further research. Merkle's visionary ideas surrounding digital signatures and public key distribution were early steps on the path toward the blockchain era which materialized 30 years later. His pioneering work fundamental in shaping the way we secure digital transactions and information.

The hash tree, also commonly referred to as the "Merkle Tree" refers to a data structure patented by Dr. Merkle in 1979. Building off previous work in public key cryptography, Merkle developed it when searching for a method for securely obtaining digital signatures. In other words, an effective way to validate the identity of the signer, as well as the origin and content of an electronic message. What sets this research apart is not just its historical significance, but its role as a prerequisite for the innovations that followed; blockchain and cryptocurrency. Merkle Trees are utilized today by Bitcoin, Ethereum and other cryptocurrencies to record transactions.

Today, Merkle's focus is on other areas of research but he has commented on cryptocurrency on several occassions as of late. "Bitcoin is the first example of a new form of life...it lives and breathes on the internet...it is radically transparent...if nuclear war destroys half our planet, it would continue to live...", he explains in a 2016 paper on DAOs, democracy and governance. In a more recent interview, he notes that it's important to also look past Bitcoin and at cryptocurrency and blockchain as a whole, noting:

It looks like it’s a good idea, and it appears to solve a lot of problems. Cryptocurrencies seem to deal effectively with a lot of problems, but they’re definitely still going through the teething process. It’s pretty obvious at this point that cryptocurrencies work, and as we move towards a world where they’re more widely used, we’ll need to deal with a bunch of issues across the larger software ecosystem to help them gain greater commercial traction.


Every Thursday, we invite you to join us as we embark on a journey through time, peeling back the layers of history to uncover the origins of blockchain. In this blog series, we'll introduce you to the remarkable minds, successes and failures, and monumental events that laid the foundation for the digital transformation that defines our world today. 

Stay tuned for a weekly dose of blockchain history, offering insights into the innovations that continue to drive our journey into web3, crypto and blockchain technology!