The Toaster Project
One of the most exciting books to come across my desk in the last while is designer Thomas Thwaites' incredible The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch. In it Thwaites recounts his efforts to source and collect the materials necessary to make a toaster (and we're talking about extracting bits of mica and steel from the earth here), and then build the thing. The result is a hilarious, wonderfully wrought account of how hard it is to really make anything from scratch, much less an electronic device. I asked Thwaites a few questions about the book whilst he was in transit to the Pop!Tech conference in Camden, Maine. His answers were revealing. His book is even better.
Can you parse for me what your definition of "made from scratch" means? Having been through the process of making a toaster now from scratch, would you amend that definition at all?
I think I adjusted my definition of "from scratch" several times in the project! So the apple pie recipe of Carl Sagan begins: "To make an apple pie from scratch, first create your universe...," this first step is fortunately not within my power. So I decided that from scratch in this case would mean that I would have to go to the "ultimate" source (at least in geological time) of all the materials in toasters, that is, holes in the ground. I also thought that making it myself would mean that I would have to transform the rocks and sludge myself, using only tools that were available in pre-industrial times. Well, I began by getting a train to an iron mine, so that immediately caused that definition to be, um, revised. And in the end, I ended up using plastic "mined" from a rubbish dump. In having to break my own "rules" about what from scratch meant, I think I realized how inter-reliant everyone is. There is no from scratch, for anything. Even if I had managed to walk to the mines, dig everything up myself, and process it in entirely pre-industrial ways, well, I was using knowledge from Wikipedia and text books. Would I have had to have done the whole project when I was a toddler to really make a toaster from scratch?
Why a toaster?
A toaster, like no other object, says "progress"; additional modicums of convenience at ever lower prices. The early electricity companies developed toasters in the early 1900s to stimulate domestic demand for electricity, as they weren't selling enough power in the mornings and evenings (in fact 1909 is considered by those in the know to be the centenary of the first commercially successful toaster). So 100 years on and toasters are remarkably cheap and mundane, our lives are filled with convenience (which is nice—I appreciate not having to light a fire every morning for a start), but perhaps the realization is growing that convenience and price aren't all there is to it.
Considering it cost you some 1200 pounds to make yours, have you sorted out how a department store can sell one for as little as five pounds? How would you bring the cost of your toaster down if you were to make one again?
Ha! Perhaps go in to production and make 10,000 at once!
Which materials you sought out was the hardest to work with or the hardest to source?
Steel, which I had assumed wouldn't be too hard given the fact that it's ubiquitous in our civilization, I thought would be within my means—that the methods and techniques for making it would be so refined and available. However, not on the scale at which I was working... In fact, even Iron, a sort of pre-cursor to Steel, proved extremely difficult... Thus I wasn't even able to make a spring to make a pop up toaster.
Any plans to make another common appliance? An eggbeater maybe?
Well, weirdly, I was contacted by a TV production company asking much the same question. And so I am currently making a short TV series, where I will be attempting to make: a lightbulb, a hover mower, and a pair of trainers... We'll see how it turns out.