Book Review : The Toaster Project by Thomas Thwaites

Posted on September 1, 2012

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The Toaster Project (or a heroic attempt to build a simple electronic appliance from scratch) documents one man’s quest to close the gap between our comfortable way of life and the lack of knowledge of the basic technologies that sustain it.

Every year when we hear the words “Harvest Festival” we are reminded of the realities of our consumer society; but the distance between producers and consumers doesn’t just apply to food.The Toaster Project (or a heroic attempt to build a simple electric appliance from scratch) documents one man’s quest to close the gap between our comfortable way of life and the lack of knowledge of the basic technologies that sustain it.

Thomas Thwaites set out to make a working toaster from scratch – mining and processing the raw materials by hand

The book, published last November, is the story of how a Masters Student from London set out to design a toaster from scratch. Partly inspired by the line in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (don’t let that put you off church fans) “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it”, the author, Thomas Thwaites, begins by disassembling the cheapest electric toaster he can find (from Argos and sold for £3.94). He discovered that the toaster was made up of 157 discrete parts formed from 404 individual pieces. He catalogues these into five different materials necessary to make a functioning toaster (steel, mica, plastic, copper and nickel) and then sets about manufacturing these from raw materials. His toaster looks like something from a horror film but, we are assured, heats (if not toasts) bread!

The author dissassembled the cheapest toaster on the market and found it was made from 404 individual components

The project makes for a fascinating read, with the science-bits easy to understand thanks to the comic and self-deprecating tone of the author. Thwaites soon discovers the limitations of his three self-imposed rules that 1) the toaster must be comparable to the Argos equivalent in form and function, 2) it must be made from scratch on 3) a domestic scale. The nine month project sees him travel down mines and up mountains in search of raw materials. He finds modern textbooks too far removed to be useful in guiding domestic scale processing, turning instead to a sixteenth century treatise translated from Latin by a man who was to become President of the United States of America, using which he constructs his own modern-primitive furnace before going on to experiment with processing techniques ranging from electrolysis to microwave smelting.

As well as the ‘how’ we learn about ‘why’ – discovering that electric appliances like the toaster and the kettle were created not in response to consumer demands but the desire of the pioneering electricity generating companies to create demand for their product during the day (surplus electricity being hard to store even nowadays). The book retains throughout an undercurrent questioning the morality of our consumer culture, even pausing to explore whether human society has caused a new epoch in the geological record (the “Anthropocene”) as a result of the radioactivity from nuclear weapons and the creation of new molecules through the invention of plastics. Creating these proves to be the biggest challenge, with the chemical transformations required from crude oil too complex for domestic scale production, but, admittedly only by bending his own rules, Thwaites succeeds in the end, after a detour involving potatoes!

The Toaster Project documents one man’s quest to close the gap between our comfortable way of life and the lack of knowledge of the basic technologies that sustain it.

The author concludes by highlighting the wonders of capitalism; that whilst paying £3.94 for a toaster from Argos may seem reasonable, paying £3.94 for an appliance that has been made entirely from refined, processed, fabricated and packaged rocks and oil doesn’t seem to add up; citing his own £1,187.54 toaster as the only, but overwhelmingly convincing, evidence.

Phillip Dawson

The Toaster Project (or a heroic attempt to build a simple electric appliance from scratch) by Thomas Thwaites was published by Princeton Architectural Press on 20 November 2011 and is available through the publishers or from Amazon ISBN-10: 1568989970

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