Tag Archives: William J. Mitchell

We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us

Marshall McLuhan? Winston Churchill? Robert Flaherty? Emerson Brown? John Culkin? William J. Mitchell? Anonymous?

tools12Dear Quote Investigator: The famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan has been credited with a brilliant adage about the co-evolution of humans and tools. Here are two versions:

  1. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.
  2. We make our tools, and then our tools make us.

I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that these sayings evolved from a remark made by the U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a speech in the House of Commons in October 1943. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the night of 10th May, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

Churchill referred to “buildings” instead of “tools”, but buildings may be viewed as specialized tools for providing shelter. Interestingly, by 1965 a variant using “tools” was being attributed to Churchill. Details are provided further below in this set of chronological citations.

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Notes:

  1. 1943 October 28, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, House of Commons Rebuilding, Speaking: The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill), HC Deb 28, volume 393, cc403-73. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on June 25, 2016) link