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Timothy May: The Cypherpunks’ Leader

March 11, 2022

6 min

Timothy May: The Cypherpunks’ Leader

Timothy Christopher May, also known as Tim May, was an electrical engineer, writer, IT technician, and senior scientist at Intel. However, he has become famous for founding the crypto-anarchist movement after writing the “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” in 1988, as well as for being one of the most vocal leaders of the Cypherpunk group. 

Timothy May’s origins

Timothy Christopher May was born on 21 December 1951 in Bethesda, Maryland. He grew up in the United States with his sister Kathleen, his mother Hazel, a housewife, and his father Thomas, a Navy officer. Because of his work, the family often moved to California and Virginia, even moving to France for a while. 

Timothy’s relatives have reported that the future scientist’s great curiosity and irrepressible rebellious streak were evident right from the start. In fact, May was admitted to MENSA, the club reserved for people with a very high IQ, and attended their meetings and courses, but soon grew tired of the organisation and ended up describing it as a “group of dummies” who were not worth his time.

He then went on to study Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and soon after graduation took a job at Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of computer chips, founded shortly before.

timothy may

Success at Intel and retirement at 34

A few years after starting work, Tim May had a chance to get noticed within the company. Intel suddenly found an unexplained malfunction in some chips. He was able to identify the problem, which lay in the behaviour of radioactive alpha particles. 

Specifically, the failure was caused by the ceramic that Intel used to coat the circuits. The clay packaging was not adequate to properly deflect particle radiation, which then altered some stored data, making the chips unreliable. Tim May’s formidable research earned him not only a private lab at Intel, but also recognition from the scientific community. Indeed, his was a real discovery worthy of the attention of the entire industry. 

Timothy May and his colleague Murray Wood presented shortly after their research entitled “Alpha-Particle-Induced Soft Errors in Dynamic Memories”, which was published on IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices magazine in January 1979. The research was awarded a prize by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1981. 

At that point, estimating that he had earned enough at Intel to sustain himself until the conventional retirement age, May decided to resign at the age of 34 to devote himself to other activities. As Wired magazine reported in 1993, the scientist had enough stock to “never have to flip burgers at Wendy’s” (the States’ third largest fast food chain). 

The “Crypto Anarchist Manifesto”

For a while, Tim May devoted himself to writing science fiction novels, mainly inspired by cryptography – an expanding field in those years – and the liberal works of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. This was the spark that brought him closer to a precise political ideology for which he fought all his life. May was an ardent promoter of the protection of privacy, exchange of information, freedom of speech and trade in total anonymity, to be achieved through the use of cryptographic software.

So, in 1998, he drew up the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, initiating the relevant school of thought. May himself explained that the term “crypto anarchy” is a play on words that combines “crypto”, as in “hidden” (like in “crypto-fascist” ) and also as in “cryptography”.

The Crypto Anarchists’ vision was made clear in the Manifesto: “Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions”.

This means that May intended to promote the use of cryptographic systems to protect privacy and anonymity, avoiding interference from governments and institutions and possible violations of civil rights. His visionary statements inspired subsequent movements, the actual use of cryptography in today’s apps, and the creation of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

The Cypherpunk movement

Along with the Manifesto most of May’s writings, which include works on advanced mathematics, libertarian politics and even science fiction, were circulated by Cypherpunk, a group formed in 1992. As one of its strongest leaders, he supported operations to disseminate government secrets, as WikiLeaks later did, and soon antagonised the institutions. 

At the time the internet was still uncharted and open territory, and not always safe – the US government tried to restrict the use of encryption, but failed to prevent the technology from spreading across the web. Many of May’s admirers were able to protect their identities thanks to his work and research.

The link between Bitcoin May’s Manifesto 

Bitcoin is a digital currency protected by peer-to-peer network devices. Many believe that the idea behind Bitcoin can be traced back to the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. The currency invented by Satoshi Nakamoto can be exchanged without the presence of a mediator, the transaction is protected by cryptography and the parties can remain anonymous. It is therefore a system that is ideologically close to the one conceived by May, since it uses cryptography to protect participants’ privacy and it doesn’t need any central authority.

As early as 1988, May had already imagined a digitised future shaped by cryptography: “The expansion into cyberspace, with secure communications, digital money, anonymity and pseudonymous, and other crypto-mediated interactions, will profoundly change the nature of economies and social interactions.”

May’s final days

Tim May died of natural causes at his home on 13 December 2018 at the age of 66. As the New York Times reports, the scientist had long led a reclusive life. He expected that sooner or later government agents would arrest him and often spoke of wanting to harm himself. 

Unconventional thinker and brilliant scientist, he had radical political ideals marking his path, May has undoubtedly left a legacy of important works, that can be seen as the inspiration for many that are changing the world today.