Thomas Thwaites is an interesting fellow. He describes himself as a “designer (of the more speculative sort), interested in technology, sciences, and futures research,” and his work as “communicating complex subjects in engaging ways.” Armed with an MA from the Royal College of Art Design Interactions, Thwaites has written a book called The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).
It was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2011.
Susan Stamberg raves:
Easily my favorite book this year, The Toaster Project should be required reading for artists, designers, consumers and anyone who has ever bought or thrown away a toaster.” What makes Thwaites’ adventure—and adventure it is; he did, after all, rack some 2000 miles of travel in making this toaster happen—such a delightful read is that the author combines the perfect dash of humor in constructing, or deconstructing as it were, his invention, from the history of medieval metallurgy to the easily tossed-in-the-dumpster culture of modern day consumerism.
Recently, I caught up with Thwaites to pick his brain.
JP: At the start of The Toaster Project (“Deconstruction”), you offer a quote from the ill-fated Douglas Adams character Arthur Dent: “Left to his own devices he couldn’t build a toaster. He could just about make a sandwich and that was it.”
What drew you to this idea of reverse engineering and why a toaster of all things?
TT: Really, it was just one of those oh-that’s-a-fun-idea kind of moments. But certainly I had (and still have) a sort of terminal curiosity to try and understand, at least fractionally, the insane complexity of the world we’re all born into. As for “why a toaster,” well, it just seemed like a good object to start with – representative of a lot about this civilization.
Any particular influences or texts you read that led you down this path? Perhaps, Ted Kaczynski? Only kidding of course.
Ha! Well, I’m a periodically relapsing addict of the Civilization computer game series. Oh, dear. I suppose, also, I developed a bit of frustration with some of the more naïve responses to the crisis of economic and technological development, and environment. The Toaster Project is a way of discussing some of the dilemmas we face as ‘consumers, (aka ‘people’).
In detail, you have talked about, even in the simplest of objects such as a light bulb, how crucial technology is. Given your firsthand experience, walk us through the creation of one of the supposed simpler components you made from scratch when building your toaster.
Ah well, making the iron. Originally I was planning on making steel, but as iron was so difficult, I realized that steel, for now, is well out of reach of ‘the common man.’ My first attempt at smelting in a furnace, burning coke, melted the ore – and I think I refined it in some degree; but the black, hard, magnetic, metallic tasting lump that I got out at the end wasn’t workable into the shape of a toaster.
I sort of assumed that it’d be easy to smelt iron because ‘we’ have been doing it for thousands of years, and we’re so much more sophisticated now. But I realized that we are not innately cleverer than our ancestors. It’s just the context that’s changed.
In the end, I resorted to trying to use a microwave to do the smelting. That took a lot of experimentation with different times, crucibles, mixtures of charcoal and partially refined or raw ore, etc. I got workable iron in the end though, but it was a long and dirty (and quite fun) process.
Your toaster is on exhibit at the Science Museum in London next to Stephenson’s Rocket. Considering the weight this versioning of the steam locomotive carried for a solid 150 years after its deployment, how does it feel to have your work alongside such an important invention in not only the field of engineering but also design and science?
It’s rather pleasing. I will leave it at that understatement. Okay, well it’s insane! The hall it’s in is “Making the Modern World,” which has all these other things that err, basically made the modern world what it is. So, there’s a Bessemer converter just across the aisle too, which is basically what I now realize is exactly what I needed to make iron into steel. But I suppose it’s among all these things which represent the Victorian idea of unstoppable industrial progress; but for me, anyway, the toaster project captures a bit of our contemporary (and valid) neuroticisms concerning progress.
Considering that, I have to ask: What’s bigger, your invention next to Stephenson’s or being asked on The Colbert Report? Be honest.
Luckily, I was slightly insulated from how big The Colbert Report is, as it’s not on TV over here [in England]. The Daily Show is though. Otherwise, I probably would have been even more nervous than I actually was!
Speaking of television appearances, word is you’ve been offered your own television show. Do you believe any cast members will perish; and if so, from helping you make what? I hear you have a hover mower in the works. Will the cast be provided with steel-toe boots or other homemade shields?
Well, we have tried out the hover mower. It sort of worked; and yes, I had to make myself a metal ‘apron.’ Slightly cumbersome.
And lastly, given all of your hard work, did you ever attain the elusive piece of toast?
The Toaster Project: Or A Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch
Publication date 09/23/2011
5 x 7.5 inches (12.7 x 19.1 cm), Paperback
192 pages, 83 color illustrations, 60 b/w illustrations
Rights: World; Carton qty: 60; (2203.0)
Photo credits: Daniel Alexander