Brain Pickings

The Toaster Project: A DIY Quest for the Origins of Stuff

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A nine-month journey to find what we lost between fifteenth-century smelting and China’s factories.

Futurist and Wired founder Kevin Kelly has famously observed that with the current structure of humanity’s practical knowledge, there isn’t a single person on Earth who can make, say, a computer truly from scratch — from the mining of the metals for its motherboard to printing its circuit boards to designing its interface to programming the complex software that runs on it. But RCA design graduate Thomas Thwaites has orchestrated a commanding counterexample, while at the same time illustrating Kelly’s point in a visceral way.

The Toaster Project chronicles his nine-month mission to build an electric toaster from scratch — no small feat, given the £3.94 toaster Thwaites dismantled was made of 404 separate parts and given also that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch. But Thwaites persevered, from mining the iron, copper, mica, nickel and crude oil to learning how to smelt metal in a fifteenth-century treatise to creating a crude foundry in his mother’s backyard.

The quixotic quest and its end result — an oddly beautiful and artful object, with a net cost 250 times that of a store-bought toaster — offer poignant commentary on commodification and the disposability of consumer culture. Thwaites’ charismatic tone and self-deprecating wit pull off another near-impossible feat — that of making the same obnoxiously preachy message we’ve heard a thousand times elsewhere for once completely devoid of moralizing self-righteousness and instead full of the kind of honest spark that might actually make us take heed.

I poked through the furnace with a stick and pulled out a blobby black mass of something heavy [...] Using a blowtorch, I heated it up until it turned bright red and hit it gently with a hammer. My iron shattered on impact along with my dream of making a toaster.”

Sample the project’s genius with Thwaites’ excellent talk from London’s 2010 TED Salon:

At once a charming manifesto for the maker movement and a poetic reflection on consumerism’s downfall, The Toaster Project is a story of reaquainting ourselves with the origins of our stuff, part Moby-Duck, part The Story of Stuff, part something else made entirely from sratch.

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