The Toaster Project, Or A Heroic Attempt To Build A Simple Electric Appliance From Scratch (Book Review)
Hello, my name is Thomas Thwaites, and I have made a toaster.
I will take a bit of a leap (carefully, my tongue is slightly in cheek) and say that this may be the most important literary introduction since "Call me Ishmael." For like Ahab in Moby Dick, Thomas Thwaites has taken on a crazy, quixotic journey in search of the impossible, the construction of a toaster. Like Ishmael, he speculates upon his personal beliefs and his place in the universe. Like Ahab, he ignores the voices of reason and continues with his chase.
Unlike Ahab, he does not a) lose a leg and b) die; I think he just burnt his finger once. He is not, as Ishmael describes Ahab, "this grey-headed ungodly old man, chasing with curses a Job's whale round the world"; he is a rather nice young man, a student at the Royal College of Art in London. He is not on a monomaniacal quest for revenge; he is just trying to be a little better than a guy in a bathrobe, Arthur Dent, about whom Douglas Adams writes:
Left to his own devices, he couldn't build a toaster. He could only just about make a sandwich and that was it."
Thomas Thwaites was going to build a toaster like the one that you could buy in a big box store for about six bucks. It cost him months, 250 times as much money and in the end didn't really work. But he takes us through every hilarious step, finding iron and smelting it, searching Scotland for mica, electrolyzing copper and mining (yes, mining) polypropylene. He documents it all, and writes with a very funny, self-effacing and very english style that has you laughing out loud.
Unlike Moby Dick, it is not a dense thousand pages; it is a slip of a book that probably shouldn't exist in this era, given that almost every word of it but its last chapter is already on the internet already, and that probably half of its 200 pages are filled with photographs and reprinted emails. TreeHugger has been covering it since 2009, here and here.
But oh, that last chapter is wonderful, what Thomas learned about economics, about the real cost of cheap, the environmental costs of making the materials, the externalities, the connections.
My attempt to make a toaster has shown me just how reliant we all are on everyone else in the world. Though there is a romance in that idea of self-sufficiency and living off the land, there's also absurdity. There is no turning back the clock to simpler times.
He has also learned the value of the stuff he uses.
it has brought into sharp focus the amount of history, struggle, thought, energy and material that goes into something as mundane as an electric toaster. Even if we still don't have to directly pay what it costs, we can at least value what it is worth.
At the end of Moby Dick, Melville quotes Job: "and I am escaped alone to tell thee." Thomas Thwaites' story is not nearly so intense, no being drawn towards drowning in a closing vortex. He burned his finger. But it is, as Kevin Kelly of Wired puts it, "mythic in scope."
The Toaster project has also been called "the twenty-first century's first masterpiece of design writing" It is all of that and more, a clever mix of humour, science and design that I am buying it for everyone I know this season. It's not Moby Dick, but it is a classic.