“Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.” Mostly Harmless, Douglas Adams, 1992
That was the thought in Thomas Thwaites’ mind as he undertook a 9-month, £1187.54 project to recreate his own toaster as part of his Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art.
How hard would it be for a modern person today create something as inconsequential as a toaster? When I heard about the book, my mind immediately went to thoughts of Arduinos and nichrome wire, but Thwaites was thinking bigger — he wanted to recreate the toaster from scratch, manufacturing his own plastic case, steel frame, copper wires, and nickel-chromium heating elements. Even trickier, he wanted to source all of these materials from Great Britain.
The book starts off with a bang as Thwaites tracks down the last iron mine in England, which is no longer in operation but does have a museum with lumps of ore on display. Thwaites isn’t allowed into the mine but does score some ore. After fruitlessly trying to figure out how to smelt the ore by reading modern metallurgy textbooks, Thwaites finds historical treatises that tell him how, and he is finally able to purify the metal and mold the pieces he wants. He devotes 40 of the book’s 191 pages to iron and it really sucks you in; a great chapter. Having constructed his iron parts, he moves on to the next ingredient, mica, which he needed for its insulating and heat resisting qualities. It’s a relatively unexciting chapter because Thwaites finds some usable mica rather quickly, after traveling to a mica mine in Scotland.
At times in the narrative the reader gets the idea that Thwaites has painted himself into a corner with his goals. For instance, when he realizes that there is no nickel mine in Britain, he is forced to buy some commemorative 100% nickel coins from a Canadian seller. When he attempts to create plastic from oil, he is convinced by chemists that it is too hard for a noob to attempt so he salvages plastic garbage from a landfill and melts it down to form the toaster’s case. Thwaites’ “cheating” doesn’t bother me, but it is something of a letdown after some excellent chapters like the iron one, where he sources the ore, smelts it, and molds the parts he needs in a fairly successful manner.
Ultimately Thwaites ends up with his toaster, a vastly overpriced but indubitably cool trinket. The author didn’t actually plug the toaster into house current — he was too scared. Instead, he connected the taster to a desktop power supply and verified that the elements felt hot — not hot enough to toast a slice of bread, but enough to verify that it works.
The Toaster Project raises fascinating questions about our ability to recreate the technology that we take for granted. Expert makers may find themselves squirming at some of the decisions Thwaites made, but ultimately his eagerness to learn and his determination to see the project through — not to mention the author’s engaging writing and the novelty of the project — makes this book a winner.