[SIGCIS-Members] James Pelkey's History of Computer Communications, 1968-1988

Andrew Russell arussell at stevens.edu
Tue Jan 7 09:24:52 PST 2014

Colleagues - 

I invite you to take a look at Jim Pelkey's website/book, "Entrepreneurial Capitalism and Innovation: A History of Computer Communications, 1968-1988," available from http://www.historyofcomputercommunications.info/.  Many chapters of this book have been online for a few years, but the final chapter is now posted and the narrative of the book is complete.  

In my view, there are a few aspects of Pelkey's work that set it apart from other accounts of computer communications and networking in these crucial decades.  

First, and most striking, Pelkey's narrative stops in 1988 - a time when the future of internetworking was far from settled.  Because his account does not end with the explosion of the Internet, the dot-com boom in the 1990s, etc., it invites readers to ponder "what if" questions and to think more deeply about why the Internet emerged victorious from its competition with OSI.  

Second, the book's sources and units of analysis are different from existing accounts of computer networking (including my own work).  As an investor in the 1980s, Pelkey was able to interview many protagonists of computer communications, collect market research, and focus on these events from a market perspective to explain what companies were making networking and internetworking equipment, what their customers wanted to do with it, and why there was so much churn in the industry. Readers can explore Pelkey's material through various market sectors (http://www.historyofcomputercommunications.info/MarketSectors/ExploreByMarketSectors.html), or through different types of organizations (http://www.historyofcomputercommunications.info/Organizations/OrganizationsHome.html).

Third, the book honors the non-linear, hypertext spirit of the web.  As Pelkey writes in his introduction, "To recreate a sense of the uncertainty each person or organization faced, as well as to give the reader the freedom to explore the history as fit one’s interest, the reconstruction assumed the form of a series of overlapping hypertext blocks organized within time. While this format provides a rich context for reader exploration, it does not lend itself to being published as a traditional book. Thus this website. I invite you to explore and come to your own conclusions as to what happened and why."

There is much more to be said about this impressive body of research and writing - not to mention the historical events that it documents! - but I'll stop here.  The 80 interviews that Pelkey conducted, most of them in 1988, are now at the Computer History Museum.  So far there are transcripts of 10 interviews available on the website (including interviews with Licklider, Donald Davies, Bernard Strassberg, and Bob Metcalfe); it is my understanding that more transcripts will be available soon.  The CHM (through Marc Weber, curator of its Internet History Program) has agreed to maintain the book permanently from the "Special Projects" menu at its website, http://www.computerhistory.org/explore/.  For now, you can access it directly from http://www.historyofcomputercommunications.info/.  

Enjoy, and I am sure that Jim would be very happy to read your comments - his email appears above in the cc line.



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