Cypherpunks Write Code: Timothy C. May, Crypto-Anarchism, and Cypherpunksby@obyte
496 reads
496 reads

Cypherpunks Write Code: Timothy C. May, Crypto-Anarchism, and Cypherpunks

by ObyteJanuary 29th, 2024
Read on Terminal Reader
Read this story w/o Javascript

Too Long; Didn't Read

In this new series, we’re talking about remarkable cypherpunks who helped to create decentralized money. Tim May is one of the founders.

People Mentioned

Mention Thumbnail
featured image - Cypherpunks Write Code: Timothy C. May, Crypto-Anarchism, and Cypherpunks
Obyte HackerNoon profile picture

“Cypherpunks” are often defined as computer scientists and programmers, but not all of them are exactly that. Indeed, one of the founders of the first mailing list and subsequent ideologies was an American physicist: Timothy C. May. Besides, he also was first to describe crypto-anarchism, a set of beliefs pretty aligned with decentralization and the purpose of cryptocurrencies.

In this new series “Cyphepunks write code”, we’re talking about remarkable cypherpunks who helped to create decentralized money and more online freedom tools for everyone. To learn more about the cypherpunks movement and its notable participants, you can check out another series by the same name by Jim Epstein, editor of the Reason Magazine.

Now, let’s remember that the group named “cypherpunks” was formed by computer science, cryptography experts, and online rebels aiming to create new software to foster privacy and social change. As you may imagine, a lot of people in the crypto world belong there.

Tim May was one of the founders of this movement. He was born in 1951 in Maryland but grew up between California, Virginia, and France. He earned a physics bachelor's degree in 1974 from the University of California. Initially joining Intel Corporation to explore solid-state physics, Tim became a Staff Engineer in the Memory Products Division, where he delved into reliability physics studies of Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor (MOS) chips from 1974 to 1976.

In 1977, he unveiled the impact of trace radioactive elements on Intel chips, pioneering research into alpha particle interference with memory storage nodes. He earned awards for it, but decided for an early retirement at 34, and mainly lived from his Intel stock options. He also became a leader and inspiration for Internet liberals, and sometimes a polemical and solitary figure, until his natural-caused death at 66, in December 2018.\

Crypto-anarchism + Cypherpunks

Being a physicist and delving more into the hardware side of computers, May didn’t really write software code but created principles that would be followed by numerous programmers and cryptographers —including Satoshi Nakamoto. Those principles would birth many Internet freedom tools in the future (our present). That’s why we want to start the series with him: he didn’t write code, but inspired and guided others to do it. He believed that the crypto-code was the answer to protect our privacy and autonomy, and led the fight for it.


Back in 1988, around three years after leaving Intel, May published the Crypto-Anarchism Manifesto. In it, he visualized a future in which anonymity and financial freedom would come for everyone thanks to digital cryptographic tools, and the government powers wouldn’t have control over online activities.

“Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner (...) These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.”

More talented people would join to support this future. The first Cypherpunk mailing list (to which Satoshi also belonged) started in 1992 by May, Eric Hughes, John Gilmore, and Judith Milhon. Their purpose was to support the creation of new software to protect privacy. As Hughes stated in his Cypherpunk Manifesto: “Cypherpunks write code. We know that someone has to write software to defend privacy, and (…) we're going to write it.”

May didn’t write software code, but he did write the moral code of these activists. Besides his first Crypto-Anarchism Manifesto, he also published the Cyphernomicon (A cypherpunk’s FAQ), Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities, Libertaria in Cyberspace, a Crypto Glossary, and Cyberspace, Crypto Anarchy, and Pushing Limits.

Yet Another PayPal

As you can imagine, these ideas heavily influenced the current decentralized sector and privacy landscape. The number of subscribers to the cypherpunk mailing list (and, likely, to the movement) reached over 2,000 individuals by 1997, and the results are still seen today.

Remarkable names and products that came from here include Julian Assange (WikiLeaks), Adam Back (Hashcash & Blockstream), Eric Blossom (GNU Radio Project), Phil Zimmerman (PGP Protocol), Bram Cohen (BitTorrent & Chia), Hal Finney (First Proof-of-Work), Nick Szabo (First Smart Contracts), Wei Dai (B-Money), Zooko Wilcox (Zcash), and, of course, Satoshi Nakamoto (Bitcoin). We’ll cover some of them in our future articles in this series.


Tim May wasn’t fully happy with Bitcoin though. In an interview with CoinDesk a couple of months before his death, he commented how all the centralized services (KYC exchanges, bank-friendly coins, etc.) around Bitcoin and other cryptos would make Satoshi “barf.” Cryptocurrencies are meant to be completely decentralized, and not “Yet Another PayPal.”

“There’s not much of interest to many of us if cryptocurrencies just become Yet Another PayPal, just another bank transfer system. What's exciting is the bypassing of gatekeepers, of exorbitant fee collectors, of middlemen who decide whether Wikileaks — to pick a timely example — can have donations reach it. And to allow people to send money abroad. Attempts to be "regulatory-friendly" will likely kill the main uses for cryptocurrencies, which are NOT just another form of PayPal or Visa.”

Obyte as a fully decentralized crypto

The Obyte cryptocurrency ecosystem distinguishes itself as a superior embodiment of decentralized ideals, aligning with Tim May's vision of bypassing gatekeepers and eliminating exorbitant fee collectors. Unlike many cryptocurrencies that risk becoming mere replicas of traditional financial systems, Obyte's design emphasizes simplicity, efficiency, and user empowerment.


By utilizing a Directed Acyclic Graph (DAG) structure instead of a blockchain, Obyte enhances decentralization, security, and community ownership by replacing miners or “validators” with much less powerful Order Providers (OPs). The transactions of the OPs serve as waypoints to order the rest, and that’s it. They can’t approve, block, censor, or control other users’ transactions in any way.

In contrast to attempts to be overly "regulatory-friendly" (e.g. by censoring Tornado Cash transactions) that risk stifling the true potential of cryptocurrencies, Obyte's focus on maintaining its decentralized ethos ensures that it remains a freedom-asserting, censorship-proof, and neutral space. The ecosystem's dedication to enabling secure, private, and low-cost transactions exemplifies a commitment to the ideals that cypherpunks envisioned, making Obyte a standout model in the realm of decentralized finance.

Read more from Cypherpunks Write Code series:

Wei Dai & B-money

Nick Szabo & Smart Contracts

Adam Back & Hashcash

Eric Hughes & Remailer

St Jude & Community Memory

Hal Finney & RPOW

John Gilmore and EFF

Phil Zimmerman & PGP

Featured Vector Image by Garry Killian / Freepik

Tim May Photograph by Jim Epstein / Twitter