Quote Origin: We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us

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

Tools used in an office from Unsplash

Dear 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: A thematic precursor to this saying appeared in the famous 1854 book “Walden” by U.S. naturalist and essayist Henry David Thoreau. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven.

Thoreau was writing about agriculture and construction, both of which had enormous influence on human culture. A separate Quote Investigator article about the quotation immediately above is available here.

In October 1943 U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech in the House of Commons. Churchill employed a phrase that partially matched the saying under examination:2

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.

Churchill’s expression was memorable, and a short piece in “The New Yorker” magazine in November 1943 reprinted his words:3

“We shape our buildings and afterward our buildings shape us,” said Mr. Churchill, addressing Parliament on the subject of plans for rebuilding the bombed-out House of Commons. He had a lot of good reasons for wanting to keep the British legislature just as it used to be—a rectangular chamber instead of a semicircular one, so that the dividing line between Liberal and Conservative could be marked by an aisle a man would think twice before crossing…

In 1948 the New York periodical “The Saturday Review” discussed a documentary about U.S. agriculture by filmmaker Robert Flaherty which depicted large-scale mechanization. The narration included thematically pertinent commentary using the word “shape”:4

These miraculous machines!
Do we shape them
Or do they shape us?
Or reshape us from our decent, far designs?

But we are learning.
We are learning to build for the future
From the ground up.

In February 1965 a subcommittee of the U.S. Senate convened to discuss the improvement of educational quality in schools. Emerson Brown who was the President of the American Textbook Publishers Institute testified, and he employed a statement that strongly matched the one under investigation. Intriguingly, he credited Winston Churchill. Perhaps Brown crafted the variant based on his own faulty memory. Alternatively, he was relaying an altered quotation that was already in circulation:5

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our tools and then the tools shape us.” The tools the textbook publishers are capable of producing today can, if given the opportunity, shape a new and better education for all young people growing up today.

In March 1967 “The Saturday Review” published an expository article titled “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan” by John M. Culkin who was a friend and colleague of McLuhan’s. Culkin’s presentation and interpretation of McLuhan’s thought was organized into five main sections as indicated in the article:6

What follows is one man’s McLuhan served up in barbarously brief form. Five postulates, spanning nearly 4,000 years, will serve as the fingers in this endeavor to grasp McLuhan.

The third postulate was “Life imitates art”, and the elaboration written by Culkin included an instance of the saying:

3) Life imitates art. We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us. These extensions of our senses begin to interact with our senses. These media become a massage. The new change in the environment creates a new balance among the senses. No sense operates in isolation. The full sensorium seeks fulfillment in almost every sense experience.

The fourth postulate presented a specific example of a tool that was shaped by humans:

4) We shaped the alphabet and it shaped us. In keeping with the McLuhan postulate that “the medium is the message,” a literate culture should be more than mildly eager to know what books do to people.

Culkin helped to popularize the expression under analysis, but the 1965 citation suggested that it was already in circulation. Note that Culkin was presenting McLuhan’s ideas; however, QI has been unable to determine whether McLuhan claimed coinage.

In 1967 a book by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore titled “The Medium is the Massage” was published. A complementary experimental recording was released the next year. A website about the book and the recording is located at themediumisthemassage.com. An instance of the saying was listed on a webpage with an ascription to Culkin:7

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
— John M. Culkin

The recording is available on YouTube and the saying was spoken on side A at 6 minutes 27 seconds. But the words were not spoken by McLuhan; instead, the voice sounded like that of an old man. In addition, the saying was modified with a pun:8

We shape our toes and thereafter our toes ape us.

The second album side is also available on YouTube. The adage was spoken with the voice of a child on side B at 15 minutes 33 seconds:9

We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.

In 1968 “The Rotarian” printed an essay that contained a modified instance of Churchill’s adage together with variant thoughts:10

It is true what Churchill said: “We build our buildings, we shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” We can express it in an even more general way. Nature is shaping man, and man is reshaping Nature. Society is reshaping man and the buildings which are reshaping man and society. The networks demolish and reshape the buildings.

In 1970 “Southwest Review” published an anti-war poem with the variant phrase “Our tools make us” instead of “Our tools shape us”:11

Hefting the M-l and slapping the operating rod handle back
As if they were masters of silence.
Our tools make us.
The brute brown length of my rifle oppresses me,
And how I served it with patches and rod,

In 1985 an electrical engineering textbook titled “VLSI Systems Design for Digital Signal Processing” included a full version of the adage using “make” and “tools”, but the surrounding quotation marks indicated that the book authors disclaimed coinage:12

A structured approach to design seems a desirable, if somewhat elusive, goal. Yet, there is a danger that the complexity of the overall methodology could inhibit the design process: “First we make our tools, and then our tools make us.” This accounts for the reluctance of many teams to formalize their procedures.

In 1986 a journal published by the American Library Association reported on a keynote speech delivered at a conference during which a version of the adage was attributed to Marshall McLuhan:13

The conference theme—”Accreditation: The Way Ahead?”—was addressed in a keynote paper presented by Richard Budd, dean of the Rutgers University library school. Budd quoted Marshall McLuhan to characterize the problems facing accreditation efforts: “We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”

In 1992 the book “The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era” by William J. Mitchell included an instance:14

Tools are made to accomplish our purposes, and in this sense they represent desires and intentions. We make our tools and our tools make us: by taking up particular tools we accede to desires and we manifest intentions.

The same author, Mitchell, released a book titled “City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn” in 1995. He credited Churchill with a version of the adage using “make”:15

In his best Obi wan-Kenobi mode, remarking on the British Houses of Parliament, Winston Churchill cast this point into a much-quoted aphorism: we make our buildings and our buildings make us.

Professor Mitchell also offered an alternate saying based on Churchill’s remark:

It is time to update Churchill’s bon mot. Now we make our networks and our networks make us.

In 1998 “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia printed a futuristic remark made by Professor Jim Dator of the University of Hawaii:16

Quoting Marshall McLuhan’s dictum, “we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us”, Dator foresees the “end of homo sapiens in one form, and our emergence, during the 21st century, into something totally different”.

In conclusion, Winston Churchill should be credited with the remark he made in 1943 using the words “buildings” and “shape”. Churchill’s statement provided a template for a family of expressions employing altered vocabulary and phrasing. For example, in 1965 publisher Emerson Brown employed a variant with “tools” and “shape”. But he incorrectly attributed the adage to Churchill. John Culkin helped popularize the expression with “tools” and “shape” when he used it in a 1967 article about his friend Marshall McLuhan, but QI has not yet found any evidence that McLuhan claimed coinage of the adage.

Image Notes: Tools used in an office. Image from Dan Cristian Pădureț at Unsplash. Image has been cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Jason Ohler whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Alex Kuskis for his analysis and Ray Daly for his comment at the McLuhan Galaxy website. Special thanks to Chris Aldrich who told QI about the pertinent quotation in Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden”.

Update History: On October 22, 2023 the citation for Henry David Thoreau was added to the article.

  1. 1854, Walden by Henry D. Thoreau, Chapter: Economy – Shelter, Quote Page 41 and 42, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩︎
  2. 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 ↩︎
  3. 1943 November 13, The New Yorker, The Talk of the Town, Quote Page 17, Column 2, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩︎
  4. 1948 August 7, The Saturday Review, The Ground from Under Your Feet by Russell Lord, Start Page 13, Quote Page 34, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩︎
  5. 1965, United States Senate, Eighty-Ninth Congress, First Session, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Education of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare on S.370, A Bill to Strengthen and Improve Educational Quality and Educational Opportunities in the Nation’s Elementary and Secondary Schools, Held in January and February 1965, Part 4, Statement of Emerson Brown, President, American Textbook, Publishers Institute; Accompanied by Austin J. McCaffrey, Executive Director, Date: February 1, 1965, Start Page 1800, Quote Page 1804, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link ↩︎
  6. 1967 March 18, The Saturday Review, A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan by John M. Culkin, (Director of the Center for Communications, Fordham University), Start Page 51, Quote Page 53 and 70, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩︎
  7. Website: The Medium is the Massage, Article title: Quotes from the record, Date on website: Undated, Website description: “Quotes from the LP recording of The Medium is the Massage, released by Columbia Records, conceived and co-ordinated by Jerome Agel, and produced by John Simon”, (Accessed themediumisthemassage.com on June 27, 2016) link ↩︎
  8. YouTube video, Title: “The Medium is the Massage Part 1 – Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore & Jerome Agel 1967”, Uploaded on Jan 31, 2010, Uploaded by: Martin Rössel, (Quotation starts at 6 minute 27 seconds of 19 minutes 0 seconds)(This video is an audio recording with static pictures) (Accessed on youtube.com on June 27, 2016) link ↩︎
  9. YouTube video, Title: “The Medium is the Massage Part 2 – Marshall McLuhan, Quentin Fiore & Jerome Agel 1967”, Uploaded on Jan 31, 2010, Uploaded by: Martin Rössel, (Quotation starts at 15 minute 33 seconds of 22 minutes 41 seconds) (This video is an audio recording with static pictures) (Accessed on youtube.com on June 27, 2016) link ↩︎
  10. 1968 March, The Rotarian, Volume 112, Number 3, Toward the Ecumenopolis by Constantinos Doxiadis, Start Page 18, Quote Page 19, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) ↩︎
  11. 1970 Spring, Southwest Review, Volume 55, Number 2, Poem: ROTC: US55415237 Passes By by John Taylor, Start Page 154, Quote Page 154, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. (Verified on microfilm) ↩︎
  12. 1985, VLSI Systems Design for Digital Signal Processing by B. A. Bowen and W. R. Brown, Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 57, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  13. 1986 March, American Libraries, Volume 17, Number 3, Section Title: ALA and You – Midwinter Report, Article: Library educators ponder future of accreditation, Section Start Page 172, Quote Page 199, Column 1, Published by American Library Association. (JSTOR) link ↩︎
  14. 1994 (Copyright 1992), The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era by William J. Mitchell, Chapter 4: Electronic Tools, Quote Page 59, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Google Books Preview) ↩︎
  15. 1995, City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn by William J. Mitchell, Chapter 4: Recombinant Architecture, Quote Page 48 and 49, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩︎
  16. 1998 May 16, The Sydney Morning Herald, Section: Good Weekend: The Sydney Morning Herald Magazine, The future isn’t what it used to be by Richard Nevlle, Start Page 16, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎