Martin E. Hellman was born on October 2, 1945 in New York City. He was a very independent child and interested in both math and science from a young age. Hellman grew up in the Bronx and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1962. In 1966, he graduated from New York University with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and left New York to pursue his graduate education at Stanford.
At Stanford University, Hellman received his Master's and Ph.D. in 1967 and 1969 respectively—both in Electrical Engineering. From 1968 through 1969, Hellman also worked at the IBM Watson Research Center where he was mostly involved in the Pattern Recognition Methodology Department. While at IBM, Hellman was introduced to cryptographer Horst Feistel which greatly attributed to his interest in cryptography. It was also while at IBM that Hellman attended the first IEEE International Symposium on Information Theory.
In September 1969, Hellman moved to MIT as an Assistant Professor. Peter Elias, then also working at MIT, introduced Hellman to the work of Claude Shannon, and once again, Hellman observed the importance of cryptography.
In July 1971, Hellman returned to Stanford University as an Associate Professor where he met MIT graduate Whitfield Diffie. Diffie introduced Hellman to Ralph C. Merkle and together they co-developed the idea of public key cryptography.
The development of public key cryptography by Whitfield Diffie, Martin E. Hellman and Ralph C. Merkle, revolutionized the field of cryptography and has provided the security needed to enable safe commercial applications of the Internet. The trio’s work represented academia’s first contribution to what was once the research domain of government and military intelligence organizations. Whenever someone uses the Internet to make a purchase, submit personal information or needs to connect to a virtual private network, it is the security provided by public key cryptography that protects the sensitive data from prying eyes and enables the use of digital signatures to verify identity. Prior to the development of public key cryptography in 1976, the keys used to encrypt information needed to be exchanged over a secure, or private, communications channel before the encrypted information could be transferred over an insecure channel.
Drs. Diffie, Hellman and Merkle’s concept of public key cryptography allows the exchange to take place over the same insecure channel as the message itself without any secret prearrangement between the transmitter and receiver, creating many more avenues for secure communications. Their invention has enabled the proliferation of e-commerce over the Internet, an otherwise insecure communication channel, and has allowed electronic communications to replace a large portion of paper-based communications.
An IEEE Fellow, Dr. Hellman is Professor Emeritus of Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, Calif.
For an oral history on the support Martin Hellman received for his work from the National Science Foundation see Martin E. Hellman Oral History.
Diffie, W., and M. E. Hellman. "New Directions in Cryptography." IEEE Trans. Inf. Theory IT-22 (1976): 644-654.
Kahn, David. The Codebreakers, rev. ed. New York: Scribner, 1996.