• History


McLuhan Program, Toronto (1990-1996)

The Coach House, McLuhan Program, University of Toronto

The Coach House, McLuhan Program, University of Toronto

In 1990, I gave a keynote at a national museum conference in Winnipeg. Upon reading the published version, the Director of the McLuhan Program, Professor Derrick de Kerckhove, kindly invited me to join the McLuhan Program. The upper floor of the Coach House became the home of the Perspective Unit. In addition to two graduate courses on the History of Perspective, the initial focus was on developing the electronic Bibliography on Perspective, which had begun in Santa Monica during my stay as Getty Fellow (1986-1987). A student from Colorado, Eric Dobbs, took first steps by creating splendid animations of Alberti’s perspective methods that were presented at a world conference in honour of Eugenio Battisti (Milan, 1991) and at an annual Leonardo lecture in honour of Nando de Toni.

In the course of 1992-1993, the advent of four exceptionally gifted young high school students transformed the scope of the project. The idea of a System for Universal Media Searching (SUMS), which had begun as a dream in 1964 (see How it All Began), now seemed as if it could become a reality. The students were Jonathan Shekter, David Pritchard, Jordan Christensen and Andrew McCutcheon. These students led programming, and attracted new student volunteers. By 1994, Jonathan Shekter received a university scholarship and left the project. The other three students, joined by Rakesh Jethwa, helped to found the SUMS Corporation. There were also artists such as Michael Kupka, who built a stereoscope for watching images on two computer screens simultaneously.
Jordan Christensen and Andrew McCutcheon at G7 Exhibition, Brussels, 1995

Jordan Christensen and Andrew McCutcheon at G7 Exhibition, Brussels, 1995
Jordan Christensen at Perspective Unit, McLuhan Program

 Jordan Christensen at Perspective Unit, McLuhan Program
Jonathan Shekter, David Pritchard, Jordan Christensen. Portriats by Anna dell'Agata

Portraits of Jonathan Shekter and David Pritchard by Anna dell’Agata

A visit from a former student, John MacDonald, led him to bring his principal, Dr. John Volpe to visit the project. His enthusiasm, and that of another teacher, Keith Medley, led to the Mcluhan Program becoming a magnet for young programmers form the Toronto region. The Coach House was not on the high-speed Internet connection of the university, so the students installed a router, fibre optic cable and thus connected the Coach house to Saint Michael’s College and the national backbone. In 1994, when on the day that the computer game Doom became available online they interconnected all the computers on the upper floor to a create a network of “Doomed” students.

The project gained ever more recognition. By 1995, it was chosen as one of 19 projects to represent Canada for the G7 meetings in Brussels and Halifax. It was the only G7 project in the world where students had done the main work. Late in 1995, SUMS was chosen as part of G7 pilot project 5, Multimedia Access to the World Cultural Heritage. In 1996, the 3 students who accompanied me to Midrand, South Africa were again the only students in the world as part of the official G7 delegation.

The University had ignored these developments and had plans to tear down the Coach House in order to create another high-rise university building. It seemed fitting to save the building, where Marshall McLuhan had held his seminars attended by students and even Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada. A quiet call to a friend at the Toronto Historical Society put the Coach House on their historical buildings list and thus made it a protected building.

In addition to my teaching at the university, I gave a course at Carleton, and became an advisor to the head of Advanced Networks at Nortel and the President of Bell Media Links. For a year there were discussions of a possible project that would link CANARIE (Canadian Advanced Network for Research and Education), Bell Canada and SUMS. Ultimately, the project did not happen, but Bell agreed to buy a Silicon Graphics Machine theoretically worth $1 million but acquired for considerably less. A main incentive was to be able to use virtual reality projects such as those of Infobyte (Rome), another of the G7 pilot project partners, in SUMS and to explore how these could become part of future content provided by the national telephone company. The Perspective Unit at the McLuhan Program was now the only academic location in Canada where such a high-end machine was available to students.

In 1994, after the McLuhan was made part of the Faculty of Information Studies, the situation theoretically improved. By 1996, SUMS moved to the Ontario Library Association. Gradually, the website was adjusted so that there was no record of the 15 years that Dr. Eric McLuhan had worked in the Coach House as assistant to his father, nor any record of the 6 years that it had been the home of the Perspective unit and SUMS. But, even if the official record has forgotten, the exciting spirit of enthusiastic students is fondly remembered as a happy chapter.

In 1998, thanks to the great efforts of Dr. John Volpe, and support of the McLuhan family, the Toronto Catholic District School board founded a Marshall McLuhan Catholic Secondary School. In November 1998, MMI was founded. In 1999, the Learning Partnership and the TAP Network awarded SUMS a Partnership Award for its work with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, Brother Edmund Rice CSS, St. Luigi CES and St Rita CES. Marshall McLuhan’s messages of media in a Global Village continue to have an impact far beyond the walls of the Toronto Coach House where his fame began.
Toronto Learning Partnership Award 1999.
Back Row Far Left: John MacDonald; Second from Right: Dr. John Volpe;
Back Row Far Right: Rakesh Jethwa;
Front Row Far Right: Sam Cauchi

Toronto Learning Partnership Award 1999

I remain grateful to Professor de Kerckhove and to Eckhart Vincent, the founding President of BSO, who gave the McLuhan Program a substantial grant, which kept it alive in the early 1990s, and provided the Perspective Unit with computers at a crucial stage of development. There were stimulating discussions with my students, especially Haining Yu, with Professor Hiroshi Ishi (now MIT) and various visitors including: Timothy Leary (Harvard), Tom Klinckowstein (then Pratt School of Design, now Hofstra) and Thijs Chanovski (Philips, then head of Media Lab, Schellinghout). I remain grateful to many kind supporters such as John Bell, Ian McCallum, and Anne Tyrie, who helped the project at different stages.

I am particularly grateful to the students who taught me that me that docendo discimus is not just a clever phrase. Some have gone into industry: Jonathan Shekter graduated from U of T and went on to work at Adobe. Jordan Christensen, is Product Manager at Shortcovers working on new digital reading devices. Effi Offer is a partner in a patent application for Dropped database table recovery. Sam Cauchi is on the Board of Fox Tech, a Fibre Optic Systems company. Avanindra Utukuri is CEO of Baanto. Jeff Zakrzewski is President and CEO of Five Mobile. Others have chosen an academic path: Eitan Grinspun is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University. Jonathan Pritchard (MSc), is now an advisor at Metrolinx, a new government agency affiliated with GO Transit. A fuller list of students is given below. I am grateful to them all for insights into a new generation.

List of Contributers to SUMS

Project Director Kim H. Veltman 1979-
Programming Jonathan Shekter 1992-1994
David Pritchard 1993-1995
Jordan Christensen 1993-1995
Andrew McCutcheon 1993-1998
Jeff Zakrewski 1994-1995
Sean Graham 1994-1995
Hugh Finnigan 1995-1997
Jeremy 1995-1997
Karel Bemelmans 2001-2002
Vasily Churanov 2003-
Alexander Churanov 2003-
Andrei Kotov 2003-
Alexander Sapozhkov 2008
Maksim Kuptsov 2008-
Programmers of Prototypes Dr. Richard Dolen 1986-1987
Alan Brolley 1987-1989
Paul Chvostek 1989-1990
Eitan Grinspan 1993
Michael Karczmarek 1994
Ming Lim 1994
Cross Platform Development Macintosh: David Seale 1994-1995
OS/2 Darwin: Ou-Yang 1994-1995
Unix: Steve Singer 1994-1995
SGI: Avanindra Utukuri 1994-1995
Graphics and Animation Eric Dobbs 1989-1991
Darius Tse 1995
Humoz Nabili 1995-1996
Data Entry Coley Grundmann 1987
Rani Talit Kharbutli 1995
Technical Assistant Wen Yen Chan 1993-1994
Programmers of Prototypes Dr. Richard Dolen 1986-1987
Alan Brolley 1987-1989
Paul Chvostek 1989-1990
Eitan Grinspan 1993
Michael Karczmarek 1994
Ming Lim 1994