• How it All Began

How it All Began

There is a  long version and a short version. The long version goes back to a dream in 1961. The short version effectively began with a bibliography, a trip, scholarships and several grants and then a G7 Project. There is also a very long version in book form called SUMMA.

1. Bibliography
2. Trip
3. Scholarships
4. G-7 Pilot Project 5

1. Bibliography

In 1977, Professor Marisa Dalai Emiliani, with the guidance and inspiration of Professor Eugenio Battisti, organized the first world conference on perspective. Because I had just finished a doctorate on the subject with some of the leading experts in the field (Professors B.A.R. Carter and Sir Ernst Gombrich), I was invited to prepare the bibliography for the conference. It was initially assumed that this would be a small appendix. Various experts (Professors Chastel, Edgerton, Maltese etc), sent in their contributions. We then learned that Professor Luigi Vagnetti had been working 35 years on a bibliography so it was decided to wait until he published his work in 1979 before going to press. Shortly after that work appeared Professor Vagnetti invited me to visit him in Rome. He urged me to expand the scope of my bibliography by writing to libraries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. Some sixty five letters were initially sent to major libraries around the world. Of these sixty replied. Eventually contact was established with 180 libraries.

In the process more than six meters of file cards and six meters of xeroxes were collected. The file cards were arranged either alphabetically or chronologically. Inevitably I wanted to find something alphabetical in the chronological list and conversely. The need for multivalent access to information posed itself. For the next five years (1979-1984) a coherent plan for dealing with these problems emerged.

At the time I was continuing with my research on perspective and Leonardo da Vinci at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. One day in the early spring of 1984 there was a visit from the outgoing and incoming president of RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network), Dr. Marcus McCorrison and Dr. David Stam. They suggested that the Getty Trust should be interested in the work. Partly through their recommendation I was invited to the Getty Centre for the History of Art and the Humanities.

2. Trip

Meanwhile, in 1981, thanks to the generosity of my friend, Dr. Rolf Gerling, I was invited to join him on a ninety day tour of the Mediterranean that took us through Spain, Southern France, by ship to Tunisia and onto Sicily, across Southern Italy, by ship to Patras, through Greece, the West and South coasts of Turkey and then back through Anatolia, Bulgaria, (the then) Jugoslavia and the Austrian Alps, ending on the shores of the Lake of Constance in Switzerland. This 19,000 km. journey inspired a re-thinking of two of my fundamental conceptions of cultural history, namely, the need for recontextualization/reconstruction and for increasing the sample with respect to comparison.


Standing on the Acropolis, I looked at the Parthenon the marble friezes of which were largely in the British Museum in London and had difficulty imagining how they fit together. Standing in front of the friezes in London some years earlier I had experienced the reverse side of this problem, trying to imagine how the friezes fit into the original building. In other cases there were related problems. In Sicily and in Turkey we often walked among ruins of what had once been great temples. In Tunisia we walked through ruins of Roman towns. But even with a guide book and a brilliant imagination it was impossible to picture clearly what these monuments and towns of the past might have been like. It became obvious that one could not really understand the past without reconstructions. But these were often influenced by particular schools of thought. So the challenge arose of creating a system that would allow one to view multiple reconstructions, rather than merely presenting the fashion of the day as if it were the truth.

Need to Increase the Sample in Comparisons

The word colosseum invariably conjures up a buiding in Rome. I was quite unaware that there were some twenty six colosseums built in Roman times including ones in Arles (France) and El Djem (Tunisia). To understand the characteristics and significance of colosseums it is essential to take all the examples into account. It became clear that in order to make valid claims we need to increase the sample, to look at all the particulars before making claims about the universals.

These concepts inspired two articles Reality, Knowledge and Excellence (which was subsequently published in slightly altered form as Computers and a New Philosophy of Knowledge) and A Proposal Concerning the Reorganization of Knowledge. These articles became the starting points for the underlying universal approach to culture in SUMS.

3. Scholarships

In 1986-1987 I had the honour of being named Canada's first Getty Scholar at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in Santa Monica. It was there that the bibliography was typed into a computer and the ideas concerning multivalent access to information began taking an electronic form.

Immediately after the year at the Getty, I was fortunate to receive a Canada Research Fellowship which gave me five years (1987-1992) to pursue my ideas. In this period the particular database aspects of the bibliography and the universal cultural aspects introduced by the trip were integrated. A first prototype of SUMS used Toolbook as an authoring tool.

In 1991, the support of Professor de Kerckhove, through a grant from BSO (Utrecht) to the McLuhan Program, made it possible to begin working on a serious demo. In the process the limitations of Toolbook led to a decision to create our own software in C++. Grants from the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), the Metro Board of Education and North York Board of Education made it possible to continue.


In 1994 it was recognized that SUMS offered important innovations in terms of browsing on the Internet using home pages. In 1995, with the advent of Java and VRML, it was decided to integrate these features into the software.

Links with Education

A pilot project at York Mills Collegiate (1994-1995), led by the head librarian, Mr. Keith Medley, demonstrated that the principles of SUMS could be used directly in a school environment. The success of this venture inspired a former student, Mr. John MacDonald to introduce a SUMS partnership with Brother Edmund Rice Secondary School. The co-operation of John Volpe, a high school principal helped to extend this to three elementary schools (St. Rita, Pope Paul and St. Luigi) in the context of a Technological Literacy project. This led to a Partnership Award (1999) from the Learning Partnership.

Applications in Government and Industry

In 1995, when an application for a grant from the Canadian Advanced Network for Research Industry and Education (CANARIE) was encouraged but not immediately funded, the industry partners decided to continue nonetheless. The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) formed a consortium with the Centre for Art and Technology at Carleton University to convert their 900 hours of training into SUMS and to explore applications of SUMS for training and higher education. Bell Canada, another member of the CANARIE proposal, decided to continue support for short term applications through Media Linx. To this end they provided equipment and resources to produce working prototypes of SUMS in two fields: health and education. A change in direction within Bell led to an interruption.

High Bandwidth Experiments

The many demonstrations of SUMS included some to senior members of industry and government officials (1994). This led to an invitation to give demonstrations at two successive boot camps of the Systems Engineering Society (SES) one at the NRC in Ottawa, the other at the CBC in Toronto devoted to the future of broadcasting. From this emerged the idea of a high speed test-bed environment that would link the Bell Centre for Creative Communications at Centennial College, CBC and the McLuhan at OC-12 level (622 megabits/second) which would then link to the CANARIE network and to Europe via the Teleglobe Cantat III line at ATM speeds (35 megabits/second).


With a view to research into future applications Bell also contributed towards an onyx Reality Engine 2, towards which, Silicon Graphics Inc. (Canada), another of the CANARIE partners, also made a generous donation in kind. This machine was intended to permit us to include the National Research Council's 3-D camera, the GMD's DVP and their work on virtual museums in the context of SUMS demonstrations.

International Links

Demos of SUMS attracted attention from increasingly wider audiences, including the CIDOC (Comité Internationale pour la Documentation de l'Art) section (Quebec City, 1992) of ICOM (International Committee on Museums) and the Couchiching Conference (1993). Thanks to support from Industry Canada we were invited to participate in international meetings such as CEBIT (Hanover, 1994), the G7 Information Society Exhibition (Brussels, 1995), the European Commission (Brussels, 1995, figure 1), the G7 Summit (Halifax, 1995) and at the Information Society and Developing Countries (ISAD) Conference and Exhibition (Midrand, June 1996, figure 2).

4. G7 Pilot Project 5: Multimedia Access to World Cultural Heritage

In the spring of 1996, SUMS was one of four projects to be chosen as part of G7 pilot project five, representing Canada at the Information Society and Developing Countries (ISAD) Conference in South Africa (Midrand, May 1996). The booth focussed on four themes:

Capture NRC Laser Camera (Ottawa)
Archive Museum of the History of Science Project (Florence)
Display Infobyte Reconstruction of Nefertari (Rome)
Navigate SUMS (Toronto)

This had three major consequences for SUMS: it became 1) the Canadian test site for IBM's Vatican Library Project; 2) the first Canadian company to be included as a partner in ACTS (Advanced Communications and Technologies Services): the DVP (Distributed Video Production) project of the GMD (Gesellschaft für Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung); 3) SUMS was invited to participate in at least three other ACTS proposals. It was foreseen that these will dovetail with Canadian applications. At the G7 meeting in Brussels SUMS was the only software of its kind described as a tool for advanced conceptual navigation in cyberspace.

Since that time, SUMS has played a quiet role in developing co-operation between the G8's global efforts and the initiatives of the EC. SUMS accompanied the EC's delegation on Euro-Japanese Culture (Gifu, April 1998) and Euro-Mediterranean Culture (Cairo, September 1998). At the European level there has been co-operation with the Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione (ICCD, Rome), DGXIIIb now IST (Brussels). It played a role in the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for Multimedia Access to Europe’s Cultural Heritage, the MEDICI Framework and the founding of E-Culture Net.

In 1994, a Dutch Television station (VPRO) did a two hour documentary on the Information and included 8 minutes on SUMS. This was seen by a student at the Hogeschool in Maastricht who subsequently came for a term in the spring of 1995. The next year two more students came.  On the basis of this the Hogeschool Maastricht and the Universiteit Maastricht joined forces to create a Maastricht McLuhan Institute (MMI) which was intended to develop SUMS with the help of 2-3 programmers and a staff of 20-30 researchers. A change in economic climate coupled with a change in key decision makers led the university to close the Institute in 2004 at just about the time when it was originally to have reached its full size.

A next step came from an unexpected source. In 2003, two Russian students from Smolensk, Vasiliy and Alexander Churanov, began to work on the demo during a one month visit. This has led to further visits, the addition of a third student, Andrey Kotov, which has resulted in this demo. There are currently plans for a new European University of Culture with campuses in Berlin (art and aesthetics), Bologna (humanities), Madrid (languages and literature) and Paris (philosophy and Internet). It is foreseen that the demo will be developed in Paris in the context of the new department on Internet and Culture. 

Figure 1. The Hon. Dr. Jon Gerard, Minister of State for Science and Technology; the Hon. John Manley (Minister Of Economics); the Hon. Jean Dupuis, (Minister of Culture) and the Canadian Delegation to the G7 Exhibition and Conference (Brussels, February 1995), including two representatives of SUMS, namely, Rakesh Jethwa (back row third from right) and Andrew McCutcheon (back row, far right).

Figure 2. Detail of same: Back Row far Left: Rakesh Jethwa, Back Row, far Right: Andrew McCutcheon.

Figure 3. The President of RAI at the stand of G7 Pilot Project 5 (Midrand, May 1996).