James Pelkey, former SFI Board Chair. (image: Walter Fontana)

James Pelkey, former member of the SFI Board of Trustees, passed away on February 16, 2023, at the age of 77 in Maui, Hawaii. A committed supporter of the research carried out at SFI, Pelkey served on SFI’s Board of Trustees for a decade, and became the Chair of the Board from 1990-1992. He was instrumental in acquiring the property on Hyde Park Road for SFI’s Cowan Campus, and one of the building’s Pods – a collaborative research working space – has a plaque in his name.

An early witness to the transformation that was taking place in the computer communications industry and the resulting information-based economy, Pelkey was driven by questions of how technological innovation could become economic growth. He wanted to understand if there was a general principle underlying the emergence and evolution of information-based companies and if the process could be made more efficient and effective. Pelkey’s search led him to the work in economic theory carried out at the Santa Fe Institute, and eventually to joining its Board.

“Jim loved SFI. He recruited me while he was Chair of the Board and added a number of others from the tech industry, changing the composition of the Board by adding non-scientists,” says SFI Trustee Bob Maxfield, who has served since Pelkey was Chair. The two met during the Symposium of 1992 and grew to know each other through their shared interests in artificial economy models and artificial stock markets. “He led the idea of acquiring the Hyde Park property, enhanced the capabilities of the board, and created wider visibility for the scientific research carried out at SFI.” 

Pelkey enjoyed attending SFI’s research workshops. He engaged closely with the scientists, took great interest in the ideas they pursued, and often hosted long discussions at his Santa Fe home. “He was intellectually and emotionally invested in the Institute, approaching his time as Chair like a quintessential entrepreneur: a pragmatic alchemist who binds together human and economic capital through vision for the purpose of creating reality,” says Walter Fontana, Professor of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. Fontana met Pelkey during his postdoctoral fellowship at SFI in the early 90s. Pelkey, he says, provided him with significant moral support and connections.

Paralyzed from the waist down as a result of an injury suffered in 1989, Pelkey was wheelchair-bound. However, more than the loss of the use of his legs, the constant neuropathic pain he felt was debilitating. As the years progressed, the pain grew worse and he eventually withdrew from the SFI Board and moved to Hawaii. He was one of the early donors to the Neuroscience & Regeneration Research Center at Yale University; his connections with the lab helped to alter the course of research on spinal cord injury to include the study of pain that accompanies the condition. Throughout it all, Pelkey continued to work on his decades-long project of documenting the birth of industries, interviewing people who were pivotal in the internet’s evolution. First published online in 2009, his project launched in 2022 as the book “Circuits, Packets, and Protocols: Entrepreneurs and Computer Communications.”

“Jim had a deep enthusiasm for SFI’s mission and people at a critical time in SFI’s history. He also had an amazing thirst for both gaining and contributing to knowledge, which resulted in him writing a history of the earliest days of the internet and computer communication,” says John Miller, External Faculty and Chair of SFI’s Science Steering Committee. “He was driven in this quest by an act of pure scholarship as he wanted to chronicle this history for future generations.” 

“At SFI we have been extraordinarily fortunate in our board members and chairs. Jim was deeply committed to the ideas and the institutions supporting complexity science. We are direct beneficiaries of Jim’s drive to acquire a campus, and his focus on fundamentals, from simulated markets through to the theory of computation. The last email I got from Jim was in July of 2022 asking for a copy of Phil Anderson’s 1972 "More is Different" paper. We shall miss him very much,” says David Krakauer, President of SFI.