Friends of Timothy May have confirmed that the former Intel engineer and co-founder of the Cypherpunks mailing list died of natural causes at his home in California on Friday. He was 67. Bitcoin and blockchain, WikiLeaks, P2P software and information markets all owe a debt to the list.
At Intel, May solved the problem of bit-flipping caused by alpha particles. With Murray Woods, he received the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) annual WRG Baker Prize for his paper Alpha-Particle-Induced Soft Errors in Dynamic Memories, published in IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices in January 1979.
By 1986, aged 34, and thanks to a hundredfold increase in his Intel stock options, he had more time to devote to writing. One result was what he called “a pastiche of the Communist Manifesto”, The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, and this would define the contours and flavour of the Cypherpunks list.
The mailing list was started in September 1992. May had got to know cryptographer Eric Hughes and found a kindred spirit in John Gilmore, who had made a fortune as Sun’s fifth employee and founded Cygnus Solutions to support free software. Gilmore hosted the list server. The three founders were almost instantly mythologised by WiReD magazine – issue #2 (“1.02”) the following year put them on the front cover as “Crypto Rebels”. The three were wearing masks eerily similar to the disguise popularised by the V for Vendetta film over a decade later. An early rallying point was the Clinton administration’s desire to put a spy chip, “the Clipper chip”, into every PC – or, more accurately, a secure communications chip to which the NSA had the keys.
The unmoderated and unruly list was soon hosting sprawling discussions about the economic, financial and social impacts of cryptography and distributed systems. A young Julian Assange became an active participant. The notion of digital cash – and the things you could do with it, such as anonymous assassination – predated Bitcoin by decades.
By the time the list had changed servers in 2001, Gilmore declared it dead.
Submitted by: Arnfried Walbrecht