Merkle’s miscue and the future of blockchain

Benjamin Samuels
Benjamin Samuels
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On September 23rd, 1908, in the ninth inning, the budding young baseball star Fred Merkle singled to right field against the Chicago Cubs, sending Harry “Moose” McCormick to third and setting up the New York Giants for a lead in the National League pennant race against their rivals, the Chicago Cubs. The next batter, shortstop Al Bridwell, singled into center field, scoring McCormick and winning the game for the Giants. As was customary at the time, the jubilant Giants fans rushed onto the field and made for the exit, which was located in center field.

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In the confusion that followed, 19-year old Merkle ran happily to the dugout to congratulate Bridwell. Cubs center fielder Soll Hofman threw the ball back into the infield, where it was intercepted by the Giants’ first base coach Joe McGinnity and hurled back into the crowd. But the Cubs’ second baseman, Johnny Evers, cleverly ran to second base, either having found the original ball or—some say—having secretly switched it out for another. Taking advantage of what was then a little-known technicality in the rules, he stepped on the base and called Fred Merkle out on a force play, ending the inning, invalidating the run, and giving the Cubs a one-game lead over the Giants that eventually secured them a spot in the World Series, which they won. Reviewing at least half a dozen conflicting accounts of the play, the National League board of directors eventually upheld the ruling of home plate umpire Hank O’Day—who had to be escorted from the field, mobbed on all sides by a field full of furious Giants’ fans. Perhaps unfairly, the play became known nationwide as “Merkle’s Boner,” a synonym for stupidity.

Seventy-four years later, Fred “Bonehead” Merkle’s grandson Ralph patented the so-called “Merkle Tree,” the technical foundation of most modern-day cryptography. It synthesized many of the powerful cryptographic ideas which had been developed by the United States in the wake of World War II, notably Lamport-Diffie digital signatures, to form what he referred to as an “infinite tree of one-time signatures.” Where encryption schemes previously required the production of a massive number of so-called keys to lock each piece of information individually, the Merkle method linked the messages to one another so that a single key could lock all of them at once: forming either a Tree or a Chain, depending on how you looked at it.

Eight years after that, Scott Stornetta, a physicist and devout Mormon, was eating ice cream with his family in New Jersey at a Friendly’s, a chain ice cream parlor, when it struck him that if the links in a Merkle Tree were lined up with chronological units—say, a week—it could create a kind of permanent calendar that could be used for recording inventions. Such an innovation could also help restore temporal order to the mudslide of media which had been set off by the easy digitization of information. A year later, Stornetta and his friend Stuart Haber published “How to Time-Stamp a Digital Document,” which opened with a quote from The Rape of Lucrece: “Time’s glory is to calm contending kings… to stamp the seal of time in aged things.”

Sixteen years after Stornetta’s discovery at Friendly’s, an anonymous programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto found a way to build fees into the time-stamping process and use them to pay the network of users to run the encryption themselves; a final step that took the time-stamped digital chain to the global market.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to garner support for a cryptocurrency with a centralized time-stamping process; it’s generally agreed that such a cryptocurrency barely deserves the name. But it’s easy to see that the idea which is presented in the Bitcoin whitepaper runs more or less unmodified from Satoshi to Stornetta and Merkle and even back to Lamport and Diffie. Satoshi’s improvement on Stornetta’s blockchain was to allow it to run independently; Stornetta’s improvement on Merkle was to standardize the intervals at which blocks were published; Merkle’s improvement on Lamport was to cut computational costs; even Lamport’s digital signature was a clever reformulation of Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman’s public and private “key pairs,” which is an idea that can be put into practice just as easily with numbers as with locked boxes or jars of paint.

What we have witnessed in the past few years is the explosion of an old idea, namely public-key cryptography, which has spent the past fifty years being streamlined, refined, and economized into a product—Bitcoin—which, even now, looks more like a speculative investment than a tool with real-life, practical uses. The sudden exposure of this technology to the public eye at this point in history, and its adoption as a political symbol by libertarian Republicans and transhumanists, is incidental to the development of the underlying cryptographic technique by obscure figures like Ralph Merkle or Scott Stornetta: People who tend to be motivated not by bioscience or Effective Altruism, but by a genuine, even shy, interest in the science of information.

As their project assumes new forms—as data storage, as a copyright, as an anarchist weapon—it gains and loses supporters. As it falls in and out of alignment with the needs of various constituencies, the cultural aesthetics surrounding the technology can switch radically. This most recent iteration, born in the 2008 financial crisis and at a time of American political division, has proven especially useful to a number of groups that are dissatisfied with the world order and have seized on cryptocurrency as a kind of cure-all. But the power of the cryptographic ideas, which have since the 1940s developed alongside their more famous cousin, the computer, means that they belong to no one group, and proceed with a jumpy, volatile momentum through the brains of a broad network of computer scientists.

The invention of Bitcoin brought public-key cryptography to the world’s attention for the first time since the early enthusiasm for personal computers. The next one may draw it back into chat rooms, mailing lists, and journals, there to hibernate for years or even decades, until it emerges once more in marketable form.

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