[SIGCIS-Members] James Pelkey - in memory

JoAnne Yates jyates at mit.edu
Tue May 2 14:19:31 PDT 2023

Thanks for sharing this news and telling the story of your collaboration with Jim Pelkey and Loring Robbins. Your BHR paper on the “The Business of Internetworking: Standards, Start-Ups, and Network Effects,” built on his interviews, was a real addition to the special issue.  Interview data from a previous era is a rare and valuable source, showing the important role of business in computer networking technology.

JoAnne Yates

From: Members <members-bounces at lists.sigcis.org> On Behalf Of Andrew Russell via Members
Sent: Monday, May 1, 2023 1:05 PM
To: members at lists.sigcis.org
Cc: Loring Robbins <loringrobbins at gmail.com>
Subject: [SIGCIS-Members] James Pelkey - in memory


I’m writing to share the sad news that James Pelkey passed away earlier this year.

Some of you may know his name from the oral history collection at CHM<https://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102746648> that bears his name. These interviews are a remarkable resource, both because they document the perspectives of many leading Internet pioneers - Licklider, Cerf, Kahn, Baran, Pouzin, Metcalfe, Postel, and more - and also because Pelkey conducted these interviews in the late 1980s, well before the social and commercial significance of their work was understood.

Jim’s website, The History of Computer Communications<https://historyofcomputercommunications.info/>, is likewise an extraordinary resource: it has links to the interview transcripts, as well as Jim’s own personal story and his analysis—in the shape of hundreds of interconnected hypertext pages—of the formative years of computer communications.  The site, which was completed in 2009, includes some valuable and underutilized primary sources, such as market research about the companies that made devices (modems, routers, and so on) that facilitated computer communication.

Over several years I worked with Jim and our friend and co-author, Loring Robbins, to bring Jim’s work and insights to different audiences.  For me, the main outcome of this collaboration was the time I was able to spend with Jim and Loring, which included a couple of lovely weeks visiting Jim at his home in Maui, as well as countless hours on the phone and, more recently, zoom.  For computing historians, I’m happy that we were able to complete three publications together that may appeal to you, depending on your level of interest in the subject. It was Jim’s sincere wish that scholars in computing, computer history, business, and related fields would grapple with his work and the underlying source material, perhaps draw different conclusions, and use the work to inform teaching and knowledge about entrepreneurship, technological change, the late 20th century, and more.

1. Circuits, Packets, and Protocols: Entrepreneurs and Computer Communications, 1968-1988 (ACM Press, 2022). More information here: https://circuitspacketsandprotocols.com/. Over 600 pages of pure joy!  Many thanks to Tom Misa, our area editor at ACM Books, for his support in bringing this to fruition.

2. “The Business of Internetworking: Standards, Start-Ups, and Network Effects” Business History Review 96.1, Spring 2022, pp 109-144. Available online via Cambridge Core<https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/business-history-review/article/abs/business-of-internetworking-standards-startups-and-network-effects/7C91F270A57FE6DD315803D908682014>. (and perhaps elsewhere). Special thanks to JoAnne Yates and Craig Murphy, who included this article in a special issue of BHR on Standards and the Global Economy.

3. “The Do-Or-Die Moments That Determined the Fate of the Internet<https://spectrum.ieee.org/computer-networking>,” IEEE Spectrum, published online March 27, 2023. This one wins the title for brevity, compared to the book and article in BHR, and is accompanied by some nice photos. I believe the plan is to include this essay in the print version of Spectrum that marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of Ethernet.

Finally, I’m pasting below an obituary that Loring Robbins wrote. It provides a glimpse of Jim’s enormous legacy and warm spirit.

Best regards,



James Pelkey had a big smile and an even bigger heart, and he made strong, lasting connections with people wherever he went. Whether paddling or hiking in the Adirondacks as a young boy, traveling to research emerging markets for new technologies, or probing the boundaries of consciousness through meditation, his curiosity drove him to explore the world and engage with it passionately. Jim was always eager to share his youthful energy and deep compassion with anyone in his presence. His laughter and sense of humor, his grounded advice, and his loud (often off-key) singing will be greatly missed by those he knew and loved. He died on February 16 on his home island of Maui, Hawaii at the age of 77.

Born on March 12, 1946, to Lois Hoffer and Willis J. Pelkey in Saranac Lake, New York, Jim loved hiking, camping, and competing in basketball and track, holding a high school record in the high jump for many years. After graduating from Saranac Lake High School in 1964, he attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, graduating with a BS in Mechanical Engineering in 1968. The following year he attended Harvard Business School, receiving his MBA in 1970.

After moving to San Francisco, Jim worked as a financial director for Sunset Designs, eventually helping the company launch operations in Canada, England, and France. He served as president of Digital Sound and later Sorcim before joining Montgomery Securities in 1984 to oversee its venture capital operations, becoming a general partner in 1985. From 1990 to 1992 he served as chairman of the Santa Fe Institute. He later held board positions with Prediction Company and Blue Sky Research.

In 1989, Jim suffered an injury to his spine that left him paralyzed from the waist down. More debilitating than losing the use of his legs was the neuropathic pain he experienced regularly for the rest of his life. Despite his condition, he continued to travel, a longtime passion of his, and made several trips to investigate possible treatments for his pain. He was an early donor to the Neuroscience & Regeneration Research Center at Yale University and his connection with the lab helped alter the course of research on spinal cord injury to include the study of pain that often accompanies this condition.

In 2007, he moved to Hawaii. Drawn to the upcountry region of Kula on the island of Maui, Jim made deep connections with many in his community, regularly attending gatherings of like-minded spiritual seekers and hosting events at his home. In his retirement, he took up painting, continued to follow NBA and college basketball avidly, and pursued his passion for history and economics.

During his time at Montgomery Securities, Jim conducted a series of 85 interviews of engineers, academics, government regulators, and startup founders in the growing fields of data communications and computer networking. These interviews formed the basis of a decades-long project to document the birth of new industries critical to the evolution of the internet. Initially published online in 2009, his work was published in print in 2022 under the title Circuits, Packets, and Protocols: Entrepreneurs and Computer Communications, 1968-1988.

Jim is survived by his friend and former wife, Dorothea Smith, his brother Brian, his nephews, Brent and Arik, and many close friends.

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