The Etymology of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message.’


By Andrew McLuhan

I like to focus on what’s practical today from McLuhan’s work, but that said, history is important and it can be instructive and useful to know where things come from. It can also be interesting, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Some years ago, when I undertook the inventory and evaluation of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘working library’ of some six thousand items, I made a discovery which, at the time, made me a bit giddy with excitement. I found a note, written by Marshall, showing where and when and why he first said ‘the medium is the message.’

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Chapter 1 from ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’ (1964 MIT Press) ‘The Medium is the Message’ reprinted in ‘From Source to Statement’ by James M. McCrimmon (1968, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company) where ‘The Medium is the Message’ (chapter 1 of “Understanding Media) is reprinted. This copy is now at the Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.

The penciled note reads: “1st used this phrase in June (?) 1958 at Radio broadcasters conference in Vancouver. Was reassuring them that TV could not end radio.”

Finding that note in 2011 was a pretty cool moment. It wasn’t a lot of information, and the question mark raised questions, but still… pretty cool. I made a post about it on the blog I was keeping at the time chronicling my inventory adventures, ‘inscriptorium.’

I did a bit of research to try to find out a date of the ‘radio broadcaster’s conference’ mentioned, but no luck. Given my more recent discovery, I may try again to find out.

The recent discovery happened in a folder marked ‘1975′ in the metal filing cabinet containing our McLuhan archives. Started by my father Eric, we try to have a copy of everything written by Marshall McLuhan to match the bibliography-in-progress making note of same. I refer to the bibliography a lot, and hope to someday make it shareable but much work needs to be done first to make it completely accurate and presentable.

I was looking for something else (to do with ‘Laws of Media: The New Science’) when I noticed another mention of where ‘the medium is the message’ came from. This gave the date as 1957, not 1958, but more importantly, it gave more detail to illustrate the reference:

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‘Professor Marshall McLuhan’s talk at Georgia State Univ. on Feb. 20, 1975. To be published in Franklin Foundation Lecture Series publication.’ Cover page / page 1.

I will spare you the customary (and quite dated) opening jokes and skip ahead to the reference in question.

It’s an 11pp. transcript, purportedly to be published but I have only the transcript, and there’s no mention elsewhere in the bibliography of publication. I did a light internet search without further results.

Here are the goods:

p5./11 of McLuhan’s 1975 speech at Georgia State University
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p6./11 of McLuhan’s 1975 speech at Georgia State University
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(5)… “My phrase ‘the medium is the message’ popped up at a radio conference in 1957 when radio broadcasters were concerned about their future as TV entered the home. I had merely wished to reassure the radio people that the unique qualities of their medium would survive any kind of revolution, since the medium is a transforming service which rearranges experiences in unique ways. It is easier to understand this process of interplay between a technology and its effects from the example of the motor car which has a special but ever changing place in our lives. My friend, Joe Foyle of Dublin, is find of explaining to executives that the great enemy of reading ability is car driving. Driving requires a perceptual but peripheral alertness which displaces the tunnel vision necessary for effective coping with the printed page. Many people have pointed out the advantages of reading in a room that is otherwise dark. However, the special place of the motor car in our lives related to a hidden ground, namely our North American need to go outside to be alone. Unlike other communities around the world who go outside to be social, we prefer to find our social lives at home. To North Americans, the motor (6) car is the ultimate form of privacy, and our cars are designed accordingly. The figure of the car creates a ground of services that are the message, or the social effects. The car requires a surround of highways, factories and oil companies which are, in effect, both the medium and the message of the car. If TV has begun to bring the outside inside the home, then it could well become a factor in the overthrow of the motor car. When a new service goes around an old one, the old one becomes as it were, an art form. When TV went around the movie, the movie was recognized as a serious art form. When our electronic environment goes around the old hardware of the motor car, it too tend to become an art form.”

And there you have it. What more is there to say, really?

Of course, there’s a lot more to say. It’s McLuhan 101. Those five little words sure pack a lot into them. Fortunately, in the just over twenty more years Marshall lived, he repeated those words many times, and went to great lengths to help us understand what they mean. The first, and largest, effort to elaborate on ‘the medium is the message’ was in that first chapter of ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964), but he repeated it in speeches and interviews over the years. Someday I will gather them all together in one place.

Of course, what ‘the medium is the message’ meant in 1957, with television taking over from radio, is vastly different from what it means today, with 5g and quantum computing drifting from the horizon to our hot little hands. And it will change again and again and again — which is why the statement is as true and powerful now as it was and ever will be.

“I don’t explain, I explore” Marshall said in a 1965 interview. Let’s follow his lead.


Andrew McLuhan

2 Responses to “The Etymology of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium is the Message.’”

  1. 1 W. Terrence Gordon

    Here is more grist for Andrew’s mill:
    1/ From Forum [Houston] 1960, pages 19-24, MM’s most extensive treatment of the medium is the message predating his major works. This is reprinted in McLuhan Unbound from Gingko Press.
    2/ The theme is treated extensively in my Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding, pages 173-179 and 325-327.
    3/ Against all odds, just one year after Twitter was launched, the Donald finds himself in the pages of Everyman’s McLuhan with a solid understanding of the medium is the message. But by then, twenty-four pages have been given to paraphrases of MM (some of them his own), and my brilliant collaborators Eri Hamaji and Jake Albert trump it all with a graphic to show that MM’s phrase is a metaphor for metamorphosis.


    • Hi Terry and thanks for your note. I did see your phrase “MEDIUM trumps MESSAGE” but The Donald wouldn’t want his last name printed in anything less than ALL CAPITALS. Thank you for reminding me of your nice little book Everyman’s McLuhan, which is very good to recommend to beginners studying McLuhan. I think I’ll do a McLuhan Galaxy post on it as we recently had a discussion about recommended beginner’s texts in McLuhan studies in my MM Group on Facebook in which there are 1750 members and more joining every day. I passed your comments on to Andrew McLuhan. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch with you for a while, but I have been overburdened with commitments and email correspondence. I will email you to update you on some of the things we’re doing in Toronto. I hope you had a good holiday season.


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