As I type on this keyboard, I am both amazed and dumbfounded by its inner mechanism. I use it every day yet have no idea how it works. Even if I were to take it apart, it still would not make any sense to me. We’ve reached the point where technology has exceeded the comprehension of probably about 99 percent of users. And it’s not just computers. Even the simplest of electrical appliances—say, a toaster—is apparently so difficult to fathom that it took British artist Thomas Thwaites nine months, 1,900 miles of travel, and £1,187.54 to make one “from scratch.”
At the beginning of The Toaster Project, Thwaites decides to build a toaster using only the most primitive of technologies, which means smelting his own metals and creating his own plastic casing. He buys the cheapest toaster he can find—thinking it will be the simplest to copy and reconstruct—and sets off on a wild goose chase for information and materials. On his journey, he meets an array of interesting characters (who help him with what they consider a rather strange if not ridiculous project), drags his best friend across the entirety of the U.K. looking for mines and mica deposits, and destroys a microwave in an attempt to turn it into a miniature foundry, among other things.
Over the course of the many months it takes him to gather materials and build the necessary components, Thwaites comes to the realization that there is no way he can possibly build a toaster “from scratch.” After failing—being completely unable to do things the old-fashioned way—he resorts to “cheating” by using modern technologies. Toward the end, because the toaster is for his MFA project and he is on deadline, because the nearest functioning nickel mine he can find is in a Siberian town “closed to foreigners,” and because he is quickly running out of money, he decides to melt down Canadian coins for their nickel. But this is only after he has exhausted all other possibilities, even the most naively optimistic ones.
Some of the best parts of Thwaites’s story surface in snippets of dialogue with the people to whom he turns for advice. At one point, he tries to get oil for making plastic, so naturally, he calls BP. BP: “Hello. BP press office. How can I help you?” Thwaites: “Hi , my name’s Thomas Thwaites. I’m a student at the Royal College of Art in London…I’m calling because I’m undertaking this project and I was hoping BP might be interested in getting involved. You see, I’m trying to make a toaster.” BP: “I see. And where exactly does BP fit into this?” Thwaites: “Well, the casing of a toaster is plastic…And plastic comes from oil, right?” “Err yes.” “And BP drills for oil, right?” “Yes.” “So I was wondering if I might be able to come and hop on one of your helicopters to one of your oil rigs and pick up maybe a jug of oil?” The conversation goes on like this until, finally, BP’s representative offers to check and call Thwaites back. Needless to say, BP does not provide Thwaites with any oil. He never gets a call back either.
In the end, Thwaites is able to build a toaster, but it’s too hot to touch, some of the plastic casing melts off, and it warms bread rather than toasting it. But, close enough. The toaster story is incredibly entertaining and well-written, but as Thwaites himself mentions in his conclusion, the entire project and resulting book were never about making toast: “My attempt to make a toaster has shown me just how reliant we all are on everyone else in the world. Though there’s romance in the idea of self-sufficiency and living off the land, there’s also absurdity. There is no turning back the clock to simpler times—not without mass starvation anyway. Besides, the majority of the world is still trying to turn the clock forward.”
Although I still find it strange and sometimes disturbing just how little I know about the objects I use every day, in a way it is comforting to know that we have to work together as a society. Thinking that earlier, simpler times were also better undermines the achievements of the present era. If we all had to make our own toasters, not only would we be broke, we’d also be spending precious time thinking about how to mine and smelt metals and create plastics rather than creating new things, philosophizing about life, or just enjoying some free time. Sharing new ideas and technological advances with each other in order to progress together is what sets us apart from the animal world. So even if I don’t have a clue as to how my keyboard works, I can take comfort in the knowledge that, should something go wrong with it, I can quickly find someone who does.
The Toaster Project or A Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011
192 pages, 143 color illustrations, $19.95