The Urtext of Media History?

William J. Buxton (Concordia University), ‘Harold Innis’s History of Communications Manuscript: The Urtext of Media History?’


During the last dozen years of his life, Harold Innis assembled a lengthy manuscript (around 1400 pages) entitled “A History of Communications.” With a timespan running from ancient India and China (circa 1500 BCE) to twentieth century Europe and North America, it explores how the development of printing and paper was connected to the emergence and spread of civilization, However, those working within the tradition of the Toronto School have largely overlooked the manuscript, drawing instead on Innis’s much better known published work. I will begin by tracing the manuscript’s origins and the context in which it was written. I will then examine the work’s notable contributions to our understanding of the history of communications, stressing the extent to which it was continuous with his earlier writings on the ecology and infrastructure of staples economies. To this end, I will make the claim that the manuscript can be viewed as the “Urtext” of media history, antedating works such as his own Empire and Communications, as well as Febvre’s and Martin’s Coming of the Book and McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy.

Finally, I will consider a “missed opportunity” to bring the project into the ambit of the emergent Toronto School. This involved an effort to publish the manuscript by a working group funded by the CRTC and directed by Northrop Frye. I contend that this failure had its roots in a crucial institutional factor, namely the lack of intersection  between the collaborative circles of the Innis Publication Committee (responsible for making Innis’s works available), the emergent Toronto School of Communication, and the CRTC-sponsored venture. The paper is based on extensive research making use of the Harold Innis Papers at the University of Toronto Archives.


William J. Buxton is Professor of Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. A graduate of Oxford University, the LSE, and the Free University of Berlin, he is the author of Talcott Parsons and the Capitalist Nation-State: Political Sociology as a Strategic Vocation, co-editor of Harold Innis in the New Century: Reflections and Refractions, and editor of Patronizing the Public: American Philanthropy’s Transformation of Culture, Communication, and the Humanities. Author of a number of articles on Innis, he has most recently co-edited three collections entitled Harold Innis and the North: Appraisals and Contestations, Harold Innis’s History of Communications: Paper and Printing from Antiquity to Early Modernity and Harold Innis Reflects: Memoir, World-War I Writings, and Correspondence. In the summer of 2016 he gave lectures on Harold Innis and the Toronto School of Communication at Goethe Universitaet in Frankfurt, the Free University of Berlin, and Bauhaus-Universitaet Weimar. He has recently been awarded a four-year research grant from the Insight Program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to do research on the Toronto School of Communication, with particular reference to the contributions of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.

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